Art in America: The Hudson River School

In the mid-1830s, when America was still a fledging nation, its first true style of landscape painting was born. This style was dubbed the Hudson River School. As with other art “schools,” the Hudson River School was not in fact an actual school in the sense of an academic institution. It was, however, an artistic institution, in the way colleagues adhere to a similar style and enjoy each other’s company.

The Hudson River School was so named because most of its adherents worked in that region, and the earliest landscapes in the style depicted the Hudson River, the Catskill Mountains, and the Adirondack Mountains (The Hudson originates in the Adirondacks and then goes down through the Catskills before continuing its way to New York City and the ocean.) The Hudson River School enjoyed considerable influence among artists of the day, and leaves a lasting legacy, as it flourished for 40 years, until the mid-1870s.

Members of the Hudson River School were friends, and often visited with each other, and also traveled together with their families. They would travel all over New York and New England, and even went to the Middle East and Europe. During the years of America’s western expansion, the members of the school also followed the trend.

They began painting landscapes from Nebraska, the Southwest, Yellowstone and Yosemite. Additionally, some of them headed to Latin America to paint the lush scenes afforded by the tropical climate.

The Hudson River School is thought to have been founded by Thomas Cole, a prominent artist of the time. Other influential and well-known artists belonging to the school include Albert Bierstadt, John Frederick Kensett, Frederic Church, Jasper Cropsey, Alfred Thompson Bricher, Asher B. Durand, and Sanford Robinson Gifford.

The elements and themes that characterize the Hudson River School are in keeping with the general feelings and optimisms of the time. There is a great attention to nature, and a loyalty to its accurate depiction. Favorite themes include those that make use of light at sunrise or sunset or skies that are clear blue.

Thomas Kinkade’s work today is reminiscent of the Hudson River School with regard to its use of light (though not often similarity of subject). Other themes include the evocation of a sense of serenity, presenting America as a new paradise, the incarnation of Eden. The main technical distinction of the Hudson River School is its artists’ use of brush strokes that are practically invisible.

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