Art Treasures of Washington – The Nucleus Of The Collections : The Hudson River School

THE nucleus of the collections of the Corcoran Gallery of Art has a certain flavour of the time at which the collection was formed that is not with-out its attraction. In it is preserved a sequence of examples of the best of the painters in vogue in the early half of the last century, and it represents fairly adequately what was bought and liked by contemporary collectors of the epoch.

The fragmentary group of portrait painters who survived the decline of the English bred artists, the so-called Hudson River School of landscape painters, and the early reflections of the influence of the Düsseldorf School upon the group of native painters, struggling to find themselves, figure prominently in the catalogue of the original gift, which numbers eighty-one pictures and five pieces of statuary ; while the eleven pictures bought in Europe by Mr. Walters, and added to the collection before the date of the opening, are an echo of the Salons of that period.

The best days of our early art had reached their maximum with Gilbert Stuart, and may be said to have declined from the epoch of that distinguished personage. The generation of painters who had drawn their inspiration from the English School of portrait painting had died out, and their traditions with them. With the passing of Benjamin West the link with the mother country was broken and the vogue of historical painting languished.

Nationalism began to be a force in the lives of the American people; and with it came a desire for independent expression. They began to look within for beauty and inspiration, and the range of vision was extended and the illimitable resources of the country, in the realm of the picturesque, were made manifest to thousands by the opening up of our first railroads and grew apace.

The awakening was general — it pervaded all the arts. Poets were born who sang of the wild beauties of our country; novelists and essayists disclosed the mysteries and enchantments of the regions of the upper Hudson, and out of the general trend of thought ,a new development of landscape painting was evolved.

The early efforts of this school were illustrative, filled with as much of the map of the country portrayed as patience and an intimate knowledge of the topography of the landscape could provide.

With courage born of a magnificent ignorance these painters attempted the impossible. Knowing nothing of the art of selection of summarizing of simplification of concentration of massing — and with but small technical equipment they painted a faithful panorama of the scene before them, over which the eye wanders, undirected, subject to a variety of impressions, but with no sense of unity or completeness.

Nature lovers they were, filled with ardent aims and ambitions to become artists —dreams that were never realized. In their attitude toward nature, they had the support and sympathy of their audience and their influence upon public taste was as long and enduring as it was deleterious. It would seem that Cole, at least, had some idea of how far he fell short of his goal, for he writes : ” I would give you a fuller description of what I intend to do, but unfortunately my intentions cannot be fulfilled. I have advanced far with the first two pictures,1 and find all my gold is turning to clay.

I know my subject is a grand one, and I am disappointed at finding that my execution is not worthy of it. In the first picture I feel that I have entirely failed ; in the second I am rather better pleased ; but perhaps it is because there is so much unfinished. I have no doubt but they will please some of my indulgent friends but they are not what I want.”

The term Hudson River School has come, in the light of the actual contributions which the painters so classified made to the world of art, to be al-most a term of reproach. For most of us the landscapes of this time are repellent and dry as compared with the fuller revelations of the rich, suggestive canvases of Constable, Courbet, and the Barbison School, through which modern thought in landscape, traces its descent.

History, however, records them as a little band of self-educated pioneers — as the precursors of that return to nature, which, unknown to them, had led also Rousseau and his followers to Barbison and was to become in literature and painting the strong, distinctive characteristic of the nineteenth century.

Taken in relation to their opportunities, their accomplishment seems admirable, and the history of their struggles — the persistence of the passion in the face of every physical discouragement, forms a basis of character from which any school of painting might be proud to trace its roots.

As the founders, or chronological forerunners, of a national school of landscape painting, these men have in the logical sequence of an historical picture gallery dedicated to American painting their immense importance. Progenitors of the present robust school of native landscape painters, they cannot by any possible stretch of imagination be supposed to be. Their ideals hark back to the brilliant epoch of seventeenth century landscape painting, and their productions seem to be the last emasculated flicker of the influences of Claude Lorrain and of Nicholas Poussin.

Italy had found, in Poussin and in Claude, two masters able to comprehend it and to express its hidden poetry. The purely decorative preoccupations of their followers contributed to the formation of that conventional branch of painting known as the historical landscape.

In this are found many second rate and insignificant compositions, for which neither Poussin nor Claude can be held responsible. After them came painters who did not trouble to go direct to nature for their studies, but who were content to imitate their glorious predecessors : for instance — Jean Glauber, who painted Italy before visiting it, and François Millet, who painted it without ever seeing it.

Then came copiers of copiers, whose works have neither style nor anything natural about them. Such painters brought about .a legitimate reaction against a branch of art which they gradually discredited.

Our Hudson River men, as we have said, returned to nature but with a prejudiced eye. In their work there is nothing naïve or unsophisticated, on the contrary, everything to indicate an intense parti pris for the literary in art — for the stylo which we are to suppose must have become familiar to them — since in their youth they did not travel— through the engraving and the chromo, just making its début.

We know that Durand was an excellent en-graver, and that both Kensett and Cole had practised the art as a means of livelihood long before they were able to devote themselves to painting. Thus it is that the engraver’s, rather than the painter’s feeling, is evident throughout their can-vases, which are accurate, statistical, and dry. That it was not only the manner, but the subject of the engraving that impressed them, and that they must have seen and copied many engravings of famous pictures is evident from the fragments of letters and diary of Thomas Cole that have been preserved.

His allusions to Claude— of whom he speaks with the highest reverence — indicate the immense influence which that painter exerted upon his work. Such passages as the following occur constantly in his correspondence : ” In Rome I was about three months, where I had a studio in the very house where Claude lived.” ” Claude to me, is the greatest of all landscape painters, and indeed I should rank him with Raphael or Michelangelo. Poussin, I am delighted in.” ” Of landscapes my favourites are Claude and Gaspar Poussin.”

Like Gaspar Poussin, the Hudson River painters too often gave themselves up to an exuberant fancy, accumulating in one picture a variety of motives grouped together without much choice. Gaspard lacked the unity, the fine sense of proportion and the strong, expressive force of Nicholas Poussin. The superabundance of needless and incoherent detail proved rather a lazy mind than a wealth of imagination.

Poussin, on the other hand, was close in touch with nature during the execution of his pictures. His daily walks, before and after work, were not chosen at random. He would go into the country, to study the various details he intended to put into the work he was engaged upon. Although he borrowed from nature in this way, it was rarely that he copied exactly enough for one to identify the localities which furnished him with his ideas. It is only occasionally that we find in his compositions the exact spot which inspired him.

The Hudson River painters were content to hold the mirror up to nature — a fine view, a pretty fall in a brook, perhaps only a rock or a great tree, is taken in its most favourable aspect and enough of the surrounding detail added to fill up the canvas. The composition never perfectly fits the frame. Durand’s pictures were largely great sketches from nature. He had no feeling for balance of line, no great traditions of art ‘to fall back upon, and he worked largely out of doors, painting directly on his final picture, a practice exceptional at the time; and without any desire or consciousness of being ‘ an innovator, his surroundings and his study from nature forced new compositions upon him.

The earliest of the Hudson River School of painters, in point of years, was Thomas Doughty (1793-1856), who was born in Philadelphia seven years before the close of the eighteenth century — a man of the people, apprenticed in his teens to a leather manufacturer —but in whom the desire to be a painter awoke early in his career, and finally dominated all else.

At the age of twenty-seven or twenty-eight, to the despair of his friends and relatives, he decided to abandon his comparatively lucrative, but wholly uncongenial trade, and, with no particular prospects, adopted painting as a profession, having as he says ” acquired a love for the art which no circumstances could unsettle.”

Doughty was to all intents ,and purposes untaught. In his correspondence with Dunlap on the subject of his life, he refers to possible influences to which he was, in his youth, subjected, and which fired him with an enthusiasm for painting, strengthened by his dislike for the trade he had learned.

Of these influences the earliest was the attitude of his genial schoolmaster, who encouraged the development of the artistic tendencies of his pupils, by allowing them one afternoon a week in which to practise drawing himself inspecting their efforts. Later, at the close of his term of apprenticeship, he received a quarter’s tuition at a night school in drawing in Indian ink.

His woodland landscapes, especially many small, picturesque, and effectively coloured scenes, soon be-came popular. Contemporary critics found in them ” a cool, vivid tone, a true execution, and especially a genuine American character,” which, in the early part of his professional life, rendered the studies, sketches and finished landscapes of Doughty more suggestive and interesting, to lovers of nature and of art, than other works of this kind.

A collection of his landscapes, exhibited in Boston, in 1831, impressed all capable judges with what was considered Doughty’s remarkable talent and true feeling for nature.

He was at one time thought the first and best landscape painter in the country.

The Corcoran Gallery owns four of his pictures, of which ” Autumn on the Hudson ” and ” Landscape ” were in Mr. Corcoran’s private collection ; and ” Welsh Scenery ” and ” Tintern Abbey ” were the gift to the Gallery of William Church Osborn, of New York.

The real founders of the school, for Doughty was but the forerunner, were Durand and Cole. Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) was the elder by five years. He was born at his father’s farm on the slope of Orange Mountain, New Jersey, and was the eighth of eleven children of his Huguenot father and Dutch mother.

The elder Durand was a watchmaker and silver-smith, possessed of unusual cleverness and versatility, which, coupled with ,an industry and perseverance, were the heritage of his gifted son. The boy’s first experiments in engraving were upon plates, which he manufactured himself, from cop-per coins, with tools of his own contrivance. He showed so much aptitude for the work, that, in 1812, he was apprenticed to Peter Maverick, who lived near Newark, only seven miles from the Durand farm. His term was for five years, at the end of which time he became of age and was taken into partnership.

At this time, Durand attended the school ‘ be-longing to the American Academy of the Fine Arts, of which Dunlap was the director and keeper. Here he had some practice in drawing from the antique.

The preference which Trumbull gave to Durand by employing him, to the exclusion of Maverick, broke up the partnership, and Durand opened up a rival establishment, on the strength of an important commission from Trumbull for the engraving of his ” Declaration of Independence.” The skill which Durand displayed, in the execution of this plate, established his reputation as an engraver, and placed him at the head of the profession in America.

For the next few years he was fully employed. Much of the work was purely commercial ; business cards, lottery tickets, diplomas, and especially bank notes, for the production of which he formed a partnership with his elder brother, and he designed many graceful vignettes. He also produced a great number of other plates, portraits of actors and heroes of the War of 1812, and race horses, ending with a ” Musidora ” and the ” Ariadne ” of Vanderlyn. In these Durand shows himself a thoroughly competent engraver. ” He had studied diligently the best prints he could find, ,and had mastered a variety of technique, from the school of the cross hatching of Raphael Morghen to the stipple of Bartolozzi. His drawing is good, his line is clear and strong and faithfully reproduces his models. That his work has so little interest is due mainly to this last virtue. If fortune had given him the compositions of Reynolds or of Lawrence to work from, his prints might now be disputed by collectors, but the heads by Waldo and Neagle, which were for the most part his portion, were calculated to increase neither his fame nor his skill.”

” Ariadne,” finished in 1835, was practically his last effort as an engraver. From that time he begins to figure as a painter. He had already made some attempts ,at portrait painting, as ,a relief from the confinements of his profession, and had made heads of John Frazee, the sculptor, Governor Ogden, of his native state, and of James Madison. This last portrait he made in 1833, at the residence of the ex-president in Virginia, and is now the property of the Century Association, of New York.

In 1840 he made his only trip abroad, visiting London and the chief continental cities and wintering in Italy, where he studied and copied the old masters. On his return to this country, the following year, he was made the president of the National Academy of Design, a post which he held until 1861.

Toward the end of his long life he devoted his talents exclusively to landscape painting, winning a favourable reputation. When in his eighty-third year, finding himself disqualified for active work by advancing age, he was obliged to lay aside his brush and passed the last seven years of his life in peaceful contemplation of the beauties of the surrounding country upon the farm where he was born.

His ” Edge of the Forest,” owned by the Corcoran Gallery, poetical and dignified in conception, is probably his best known picture. It was painted in 1871, and sold to the gallery in 1874.. There is good character in the trees, into the individuality of which he had a keen insight, and his oaks, sycamores and butternuts are valuable reminiscences of the woodlands he loved so much.

We now come to the most interesting and important of this early group of American landscape painters Thomas Cole, who was born at Bolton-le-Moors, England, February I, 1801, and died near Catskill, New York, on February I I, 1848.

He made his first bid for public attention in the winter of 1828-1829 two years after the founding of the National Academy of Design — when, quite unknown to fame, and struggling bravely against every form of adversity, he succeeded in getting three pictures exhibited, and gained immediate recognition from the profession Colonel Trumbull, Durand and Dunlap each acquiring one at modest prices.

These were sketches made along the banks of the Hudson, where the painter had made his way in search of picturesque material.

His career up to this time had been one of terrible poverty and privation. The family — Thomas was the seventh of eight children — came to America in 1819. In England Cole had pushed forth the first tentacles toward the art that was to master him, by resisting his father’s efforts to apprentice him to an attorney or an iron manufacturer, and by entering a print works as an engraver of simple designs for calico.

In the designs and colours with which his daily work was making him familiar, there was a charm undreamed of in the subtleties of law, or the ponderous operations of iron making. From this occupation, he passed to engraving, at which he worked for a time, with an employer in Liverpool.

Arrived in America, the lad was thrown upon his own slender resources, and earned a meagre living for a time at wood engraving, while his father struggled to establish himself, first in Philadelphia, and later in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio; and to provide for his numerous family. Thomas was at this time in frail health, which the circumstances of his life, with its endless privations, did not tend to mitigate. He made the journey on foot to Steubenville, Ohio, when his father needed him in the little paper manufactory which he had established in that town, and here he finally formed the great determination of his life — to be a painter. His half formed inclinations in this direction were doubtless pushed to resolution by his meeting with a portrait painter, who came to the village, and who, it is said, lent Thomas a book on English engraving, and, by his own example, stimulated the incipient genius of the boy.

The time was more than unpropitious. The country was in the grip of the financial crisis of the period : banks had suspended, men of business were hopelessly involved in debt, and produce, not currency was the medium of exchange to a great extent. So great was the scarcity of money that the transactions of the whole community were frequently carried on for weeks without the sight of a dollar. Recently a frontier, without proper roads, the country, of this district, was new and isolated.

Thought for the fine arts in such a state of affairs could not be reasonably entertained.

It was in 1822, when Cole had just completed his twenty-first year, that, having tested his capabilities with the completion of a few portraits at home, he set out with a green baize bag over his shoulder,” containing a scanty stock of wearing apparel, his flute, colours, brushes, and a heavy stone muller, to face the precarious fortunes of an itinerant painter a career ably described, with pathos and infinite details, in ” The Life and Works of Thomas Cole,” from the appreciative pen of Louis L. Noble.

But these privations, having in them a saving grace of adventure, were as nothing compared to the life the poor boy led upon his return to Philadelphia, the following year, where we read of him making his weary way in an insolent carrier’s wagon, and arriving, oppressed, in the midst of ” the lofty buildings, wide streets and busy multitude.”

” He was now to seek instruction and employment. His plan for living, as he could not afford to pay for board, was to take an empty room, sleep in a blanket he had brought from home, and live upon bread and water.” He actually commenced this mode of life with results that can be well imagined — suffered and nearly died from want and exposure, until cared for by his poor, but warm hearted landlady.

There is some mention of his obtaining permission to draw at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts of his painting pictures and selling them at auction for a trifle of work upon the backs of bellows for a japanner, in whom he found a friend of a commission for a landscape (price seven dollars) and of ,an introduction to Bass Otis, who employed him upon transparencies, incident to the arrival in the country of Lafayette, the nation’s guest.

Meanwhile, his nomadic father again removed his family — this time to New York, and thither Cole repaired, setting up his easel in his father’s garret. Some landscapes which he painted here were shown, and a sale of one, for ten dollars, was made to a Mr. Bruen, who met the artist and financed his expedition to the banks of the Hudson, where he made the three pictures bought by Trumbull, Durand and Dunlap, previously referred to.

Dunlap gives a picturesque description of the occurrence : ” I remember the sensitive and amiable painter, then seen by me for the first time, standing in the presence of the three above mentioned, like a school-boy in presence of the trustees, and looking an image of diffidence before men, neither of whom could produce a rival to the works offered for the paltry price of $25 each.”

Though the pecuniary aid was trifling, the admiration and commendation of fellow artists, whom Cole looked upon as ” arrived,” was a strong encouragement to the young painter. Dunlap also, according to his own story, published an account of the artist and his pictures, which doubtless drew attention to them.

From that time forward Cole received commissions to paint landscapes from different quarters, and gradually came to occupy a position of some distinction and authority in the art world.

Among his pictures at the exhibition of the National Academy, in 1828, was the ambitious attempt upon which he based so much hope, the ” Garden of Eden ” and the ” Expulsion.” With the proceeds of these two pictures, which his recent successes had impelled him to regard as practically certain, Cole had planned a trip abroad. In this he was, however, bitterly disappointed, and when he did sail, in 1829, it was with funds otherwise provided.

He remained abroad three years, nearly two of which were spent in England. There he met shortly before his death, Sir Thomas Lawrence. He speaks, in his correspondence, of meeting Leslie and Constable — though there is no hint of his having realized the importance of the latter. He dismisses the modern English School of the day as either below mediocrity, or going widely astray in pursuit of effects that have not their foundation in truth or nature. He remarks in Turner a great falling off,” though he admires the colour; is contemptuous of modern French painting when he visits Paris; and throughout his wanderings pre-serves an ever increasing regard for the landscapes of Claude and Poussin; speaks well of Ruysdael, copies a Richard Wilson, and generally repudiates the revelations of the school of painters just then stepping into glory.

On his return to America, he made his home near Catskill, where he died, surrounded by his beloved mountains, at the early age of forty-seven years. Here he devoted himself to those long series of allegorical landscapes, in which, like West, he studied to find visible symbols for ideas better de-scribed in words. In his efforts to represent sub-lime truths, to suggest homilies on the grandeur and the decline of nations, the transitoriness of human life, the reward of virtue, he outstepped the province 0f the painter, and his work became sober and dry.

He conceived some sort of a plot for each of his pictures, and often a series of canvases was required for the complete revelation of the story.

The ” Voyage Of Life ” represented in four canvases, Infancy, Youth, Manhood, and Old Age, drifting upon an allegorical stream of time.

The ” Departure ” and ” Return,” owned by the Corcoran Gallery, and received from Mr. Corcoran’s private collection, depict a knight leaving his castle on a summer morning, with floating banners and prancing steeds, on a warlike expedition, in defiance of the warnings of a holy palmer ; and brought back dead, at the close of an autumn day.

Such allegories were in tune with the taste of the day and enjoyed a tremendous vogue. The mission of art was accepted in its guise of moral teacher, and Cole, in his struggle to express lofty sentiment, lost sight of the message of pure painting, and in a constant reaching out after nobler subjects, technique fell too far behind to give to his work a permanent value, beyond the realm of history.

Of the work of the fourth of the founders of the Hudson River School of painters, John Frederick Kensett (1818-1872), the Corcoran Gallery contains three examples, including one of his most important works — ” Afternoon on Lake George.” The picture was painted in 1864, and became the property of the Gallery in 1877, having been bought from the Olyphant sale, where it fetched a high price.

What Tuckerman describes as an able critic, in referring to this picture says : ” The most unaggressive and loved of the leaders of the American School of painting has at length produced a picture of sufficient size to call forth his best strength; and of importance enough in subject matter, if successfully treated, to confirm his position as one of the three foremost men of our landscape art.”

In his own day, Kensett was eulogized as a consummate master in the treatment of subjects full of repose and sweetness; for his tenderness and refinement of feeling; exquisite quality of colour; and a free and individual method of painting certain facts of nature. It is true that he had at least the great merit of simplicity, that he never invoked the assistance of a great or sensational subject, but depended upon what skill and feeling he had as a painter, to teach, or rather to render the poetry of such subjects as came to his hand.

Like many artists, Kensett was originally an engraver, to which may be ascribed the careful attention to detail so manifest in his pictures. He studied engraving with his uncle, Alfred Daggett, turning to painting as a means of recreation. He was born in Cheshire, in Connecticut, cutting away to Europe at the age of twenty-two with Durand, Casilaer, and Rossiter in 1840, where he passed seven years devoted to travel and study. His first success was a view of Windsor Castle, exhibited at the Royal Academy, which Tuckerman tells us was purchased by ” a prize holder in the London Art-Union.” He made, it appears, many studies during a pedestrian tour through Switzerland, up the Rhine, and in the Italian Lakes, and passed two winters at Rome, a summer in the Abruzzi Mountains, and part of another on the Bay of Naples and at Palermo.

Upon his return to his native land he commenced a series of careful pictures of our mountain, lake, forest, and coast scenery, and in his delineation of rocks, trees, and water, attained wide celebrity. He produced freely, and sold readily, and probably none of his contemporaries received so much pecuniary encouragement as did he in his later years; though in his student days abroad he had endured much poverty and ill health; circumstances which made him, in his period of ,affluence, especially friendly and helpful to beginners in their troubles.

After his death the canvases remaining in his studio realized, at public auction, over $i50,000; from which may be estimated the extent of his popularity. But public taste and standards of judgment have changed, and the very things which rendered Kensett’s work admirable to his contemporaries condemn it now. What we now find flat, map-like and thin in his work, early critics called attention to as proofs of his skill. They admired his trees, ” Daguerreotyped from nature, with the fresh tints of the originals superadded.” He was applauded for giving ” the superficial traits of land and water so exactly as to stamp on the most hasty sketch a local character indicative of similitude,” and the descriptions of his ability to paint landscapes, whose locality could be recognized from the vein of rock, the kind of cedar or grass, the tint of the water, or the form of the mountains, seem to indicate a talent more fitted to the making of geological maps or of illustrations of nature books, than to the more abstract art of landscape painting, as practised by the greatest painters of all times.

Some allowance should perhaps be made for the standards of criticism of that day, for in another landscape of Kensett ” High Bank : Genesee River,” painted in 1857, there is much more generalization, and indeed the canvas has some of the quality and effectiveness of a Daubigny. ” Mount Washington,” the third of Kensett’s pictures owned by the Gallery, is from Mr. Corcoran’s private collection, and is a sketch for a larger picture, engraved by the American Art Union.

These then were the leaders of the Hudson River School, such as it was. In the wake of their successes came the usual trail of minor painters, in which may be numbered, John W. Casilear, Jasper F. Cropsey, Sanford R. Gifford, Worthington Whittredge, and James M. Hart. The Corcoran Gallery possesses indifferent examples of each, of which the most worthy appears to be the small landscape by Cropsey, entitled ” Washington’s Headquarters on the Hudson,” a small canvas, painted with very interesting feeling for composition and colour.

With the brothers William and James McDougall Hart, creeps into the American painter’s work the Düsseldorf influence, which flourished for a short time in the middle of the century, when Düsseldorf became the goal of the American students’ desires.