THOMAS COLE, (1801-1848) was practically the beginning of the Hudson River School. His early career as an artist was typical of the struggles and handicaps that so often beset art students with more talent than money. One of eight children in a small house in Philadelphia, where refinement and a love for music were dominant traits, he worked on his wood-engraving within sound of his sisters’ sweet voices. A young law student, who had his home in the Cole family, writes of Thomas : “He has his little work-bench put up in our room, under the window sill, we sat with our backs to each other ; at intervals he whistled and sang, then laid aside the tool took up his flute, which was his constant companion, and played some air.”
A longing for the country was stirring in the heart of the young artist until, fired by tales of a travelling artist, he slung his green bag over his shoulder one October day and was off for the land of nowhere. Indian summer was at hand. And as he trudged up the Hudson River valley the gaily decked maples and brilliant-hued sumachs, gladdening the deep green still lingering in the grass and under-growth, beckoned him on. When he reached the village of Catskill, bordering the foothills of the mountains, his real joy began. His own brush tells the story of what he saw “In the Catskills” (Fig. 12), Metropolitan Museum of Art. He opened the way and many other young artists followed in his footsteps.
It was the sale of his early pictures of the Catskills and the good will of Trumbull and other artists that made possible a trip to England and access to the studios of Lawrence and Turner. The latter said of him: “There is a young man from America, named Cole, who ought to do fine things. He is as much of a poet as a painter.”
Thomas Cole’s most famous work, at least his best-known work, is “The Voyage of Life,” in four scenes. Steel engravings, made of the series early in the last century, that have found their way into many homes throughout America, are growing more valuable each year.
Frederick E. Church (1826-1900) became a student of Thomas Cole in his studio in the upper woods above the river. It was from this spot that Church explored the fastnesses of the mountains of the Catskill and the hidden coves and the ever-varying shores of the Hudson. Here he caught that spirit, lurking in nature unmolested, which drew him irresistibly to her more astounding feats, first in South America and Jamaica and then to Labrador to complete his famous “Icebergs.” Probably his “Niagara Falls” (Fig. 13) , Corcoran Art Gallery, Washington, brought him the most permanent fame. He painted this picture before he had been to the old world and most pertinent was the statement made at its appearance that, “Indeed this work formed an era in the history of native landscape art, from the rev-elation it proved to Europeans.” He certainly bewilders the mind with that stupendous volume of water pouring into the abyss below.
It is not surprising that the picture attracted favourable attention in Paris at the International Exhibition in 1867, where it received a medal of the second class. At that time comparatively few people in Europe had any definite idea of our country or knew anything about its natural wonders. To state that such a vast quantity of water was pouring itself year after year over a fall of one hundred and sixty-four feet was almost unthinkable by the old world travellers, familiar with the falls of Switzerland. What did it mean that wide stretch of water reaching to the very horizon? Where were the mountains to stay its course? And where did the depths below lead to that were swallowing up the mighty waters? How calmly Church has marshalled his forces, until at the inevitable moment the great phenomenon is consummated !
Thomas Doughty (1793-1856) was another leader in American landscape painting. A native of Philadelphia, he was early apprenticed to a leather manufacturer and even became a manufacturer himself. But when twenty-eight years old he decided to become a painter. His picture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of a view “On the Hudson” (Fig. 14) is a fine example of the “silvery tone” he gave to his canvases to convince the American public of the beauty of our landscape. Doughty worked in London and in Paris but he remained true to his native inheritance and painted his pictures of home scenes with so much sincerity and truth that they brought him great popularity and are still highly prized.
When Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), who holds a unique place in American art, painted “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (Fig. 15), Metropolitan Museum of Art, he made a picture that every school child associates with that important crisis in our early history. Of course the boat is too frail to cope with the tremendous rush of the ice and snow in the Delaware River under the spring thaw, but we must remember that Leutze made his studies of the breaking up of river-ice in his garden overlooking the Rhine at Düsseldorf. The flag, too, is an anachronism as it was not adopted until six months later, June 14, 1777. Nevertheless, the spirit of patriotic enthusiasm overbalances all defects in the picture as a work of art. Though a native German, Leutze was reared in America and this early training gave him an understanding of our national struggles that resulted in his preserving to us on canvas the most noted events in thé American Revolution.
Quite early in his art career Leutze recrossed the Atlantic to study in the Düsseldorf Academy. Later he returned to America full of the enthusiasm of the new movement the overcoming of the artificial in producing something of the life of the present. Leutze was certainly a man of colossal mind with ideals of grand proportions, though his art was rather crude in colour and technique.
No early American artist studied art under more favourable circumstances (too favour-able) than William Morris Hunt (1824-1879). Unfortunately inherited political, social, financial, and intellectual gifts did not make him a master painter, though they did give him high ideals, and those ideals were his salvation.
At sixteen Hunt was sent to Harvard, but it was the college life, not the studies, that attracted him. This soon brought disgrace, in suspension and ill health from over-indulgence, until consumption was imminent. His alarmed mother hurried with him to Europe and finally the family settled in Rome, where he soon began to improve in health and his artistic nature to expand. His first thought was to be a sculptor, and to this end he entered a sculptor’s studio in Rome and later spent a short time under Barye in Paris. The idea of returning to Harvard was abandoned in favour of an art career – a career subject to many changes as time went on.
At twenty young William decided that his talent was painting and went to Düsseldorf, where he and Leutze were fellow students. Soon Hunt rebelled under the restraint of the mechanical methods that were used alike in training artists, mechanics and scientists. Then, too, the hard work savoured too much of college, so he returned to Paris and again decided to take up his chisel, this time with Pradier, the sculptor. Before carrying out this plan he made a hurried trip to America and while at home saw a painting by Couture (French) which so influenced him that he lost no time in returning to Paris to study with the French painter. Couture was an eclectic, in a measure, at least he had broken away from the hard, cold, cut-and-dried rules of the classicists, particularly in his warmth of colour. He also showed considerable feeling for nature. For five years Hunt studied with Couture, as his favourite pupil. The progress he made under the influence of praise satisfied him for a time, but at last his eyes were opened through the study of the old masters. Couture ceased to be all in all and, fortunately, Millet now came into the life of the young American.
Hunt saw at once the bigness of the “Raphael of Pigs.” He went to Barbizon, regard-less of the ridicule of his Paris associates, and sat at the feet of Millet. Hunt wrote of the French master : “I found him working in a cellar, three feet underground, his pictures be-coming mildewed, as there was no floor. He was desperately poor, but painting tremendous things.” Hunt’s association with Millet was that of master and pupil, though Millet never had pupils in the strict sense of the word. They walked together, these two, Hunt absorbing from the master as he talked by the way. What an inspiration to be with a man whose soul was alive to the great heart of humanity ! He would say : “See those things that are moving down there in a shadow. They are creeping or walking, but they exist; they are the genii of the plain. They are nothing but poor folk, however. It is a woman all bent, without doubt, who is bringing back her load of grass; it is another, who is dragging herself along, exhausted, under a bundle of fagots. From a distance they are superb. They square their shoulders under the burden; the twilight devours their forms; it is beautiful, it is grand as a mystery.”
Hunt bought Millet’s pictures as far as he could, but, what is of greater value, he came home to America and taught his pupils the wonderful lessons learned from the Barbizon master. In his “Bathers” (Fig. 16), Worcester (Mass.) Art Museum, we feel the honest simplicity of one who loved nature and who longed to represent her in very truth. The wholesome glow on the warm pink flesh, coming from within the healthy bodies, and the alert tension of the elastic muscles mark his sympathetic understanding of boy-life. Hunt’s sensitive artistic nature was easily played upon by Millet’s simple scenes, and at times he almost comes up to the master’s standards in his own work as in the “Bathers” and always in his teaching. He seemed to realise, how-ever, his own limitations, even in his many years of successful teaching in Boston, for he would say, sadly :
“In another country I might have been a painter.”
There were three artists who discovered our western mountains about the same time and each, in his own way, thought to make a great national art by stretching large canvases and painting expansive scenes ; but the very bigness of the western out-of-doors was their undoing. Albert Bierstadt (1830), German by birth, made the Rocky Mountains his studio and there strove to interpret the height and depth of that stupendous upheaval of past ages. His ambition exceeded his talent and Düsseldorf training, and what was a marvel in nature became tame and lifeless under his brush.
Thomas Hill (1829), English by birth, succeeded a little better in representing the wonders of California. His “Yosemite Valley” (Fig. 17), Crocker Gallery, Sacramento, carries us in imagination through the deep depression into the mystery of the mountains beyond.
The picture is a marvel in perspective; in the near distance is El Capitan towering a sheer four thousand feet above the Merced River, the tiny stream that has come rolling and tumbling through the narrow valley from the falls at the other end of the valley, seven miles away.’ The surrounding rocks are a strange rampart of sentinels, irregular in size and shape, but forming nearly a complete wall enclosing the deep narrow depression. The Yosemite Valley, or Grizzly Bear as the Indians named it, is one of those freaks of mother earth where suddenly, eons ago, she lowered a small part of herself down into the depths below and then became stationary, forming a wee snug valley about seven miles long and a half to two miles wide, protected by a sheer wall. The falls that have been pouring over nooks and angles of the rocks for ages have made no appreciable impression in wearing away the hard foundation at least not since the valley was discovered in 1851.
Thomas Moran (1837), English by birth, also painted the Yosemite Valley, but probably he is best known by his Yellowstone Park pictures.
American Pictures And Their Painters:American Painters – West – Copley – Peale – TrumbullAmerican Painters – Stuart SullyAmerican Painters – Cole – Church – Doughty – Leutze – Hunt – Bierstadt – Hill – MoranAmerican Painters – InnessAmerican Painters – Keith – Martin – Wyant – BunceAmerican Painters – HomerAmerican Painters – Fuller – Johnson – Vedder – ColemanAmerican Painters – La Farge – RyderAmerican Painters – WhistlerAmerican Painters – Hovenden – Mosler – Millet – Duveneck – ThayerRead More Articles About: American Pictures And Their Painters