Although the collective art works produced are often referred to as being of “the Hudson River School,” there was much more going on than just a “school” of painting. Writers and poets contributed to the movement, and many of the painters wrote extensively about the artistic, philosophical, and spiritual groundings of the ideas.
The school in particular sought to evolve a uniquely American vision and aesthetic based upon the observation, study, and recording of the American landscape. In part, the paintings preserve the unspoiled and fabulous wildness of America’s vast expanse, not just in the Hudson River Valley, but all up and down the East Coast, as far west as Yosemite, and into South America.
The founding artists of the movement, such as Thomas Cole, were born and trained in Europe, and brought polished technique and attention to fine detail to their often panoramic paintings. Later, Hudson Valley School artists traveled to Europe and applied their practice to creating expansive views of the Old World.
This exhibition was fascinating, in part because it preserves color views of landscapes since vastly changed. We do not, these days, think of New Jersey as a rural Arcadia, but many of the New York-based painters went afield there to find the pastoral and wilderness settings they sought. It’s interesting to see pre-photograph depictions of Niagara Falls, knowing how much erosion has changed the shape of the Falls in the decades that have passed. The paintings are in themselves beautiful, but perhaps they have their greatest value in preserving the vision of a land that was to the artists’ eyes, shining and full of promise.
“Nature and the American Vision” continues at the Milwaukee Art Museum through May 8th.
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