What is the Hudson River School?

S. Mithra

The artists' movement now known as the Hudson River School flourished in mid-19th century America, depicting sublime landscapes of the West. These painters founded their philosophy on the ideal of nature as God, and devoted themselves to landscapes that invoked the same awe and reverence.

Woman painting
Woman painting

Thomas Cole founded the movement in 1825 in dialog with literary Transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. They all believed in the ideal of the new American identity as one of limitless potential. Away from the strict, suffocating culture of Europe, they explored a new spirituality. The raw, open vistas of upstate New York drew the Hudson River School to the potential power of "unspoiled" natural formations. Man's communing with nature symbolized the return to a pure, direct worship of God. Artists had the intuition to reproduce in the viewer the same worship by representing the sublime.

New, also, was their methodology and technique. The paintings of key figures such as Asher Durand and Frederic Church exemplify the standard composition. A large canvas shows a vista under dramatic lighting. Set often at dawn or dusk, small people in the foreground emphasize the grandeur of the view. The depiction favors realism, but the accentuated lighting romanticizes the landscape. Fallen trees and tree stumps are a popular trope of the sublime, as they remind us of the power of nature to destroy and renew.

The Hudson River School promoted a nationalist agenda. They broke with the European Romantics with another perspective on their country's role in the Americas. They believed that American independence was reflected in the "empty" wilderness. This perception urged them to populate the West as dictated by the Manifest Destiny. A moral imperative to experience, yet not spoil, the beauty of the wilderness ignored the possible moral obligation to those already living contentedly in the "wild" of the continent. Americans in bustling cities on the coast dreamed of living independently in the mountains. However, the utter calamity of the Civil War destroyed the artists' ideals, and the Hudson River School's work stalled around 1876.

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