The Hudson River Painters: Nice, but Maybe Too Nice

There is a passage in one of Henry James’ essays on painting in which the writer, sounding his characteristic note

There is a passage in one of Henry James’ essays on painting in which the writer, sounding his characteristic note of irony, poses the following question: “Was Rubens lawfully married to Nature, or did he merely keep up the most unregulated of flirtations?” I thought of this observation recently when I went to see the exhibition of the Hudson River School that is currently on view at the National Academy of Design. Of all the groups, movements and schools to be found in the history of American painting, none remained more faithfully and single-mindedly wedded to the subject of Nature–meaning, of course, landscape–than the 19th-century Hudson River painters. With no other subject were they tempted to conduct so much as an innocent dalliance. Even when they ventured abroad, they remained resolute in their fidelity to a vision of Nature which, for artists of their persuasion, all but exhausted the idea of the artistic vocation itself. They were thus, in this Jamesian sense, the most monogamous of American artists.

It was therefore a considerable mercy–for us and for them–that the focus of their devotions proved to be as rich, as various and as artistically compelling as, for a time at least, it was. These stalwart painters were fortunate, to be sure, to be the first American artists to attempt to paint the untamed grandeur of the American landscape on a grand scale. They were also fortunate in the cultural assumptions they brought to the task–assumptions that easily ascribed not only an aura of visual romance but a religious and moral significance to virtually every glimpse of a virgin wilderness.

The glories of Nature were thus annexed to a Christian–which is to say, a Protestant–idea of spiritual redemption. This was a view of the world that was widely shared by both the artists themselves and their 19th-century American public, for neither brought to the experience of art any highly developed ideas about esthetic innovation. With few exceptions, the painters were satisfied to rely on “tradition”–which usually meant the landscape conventions established by Claude Lorrain and some of the Dutch and Italian masters–while the public, which remained largely ignorant of such conventions, exulted in what was taken to be an art of purposeful celebration of the world that (in their view) God had created for their spiritual and material benefit.

It is for all of these reasons that the Hudson River School of landscape painting forms a kind of oasis of repose in the history of American cultural life. The absence of menace in these picturesque paintings of the wilderness, like the absence of sex in Emerson, imparts an air of unreality to what is most appealing in the art itself. The clarity of the gold-tinted light that is so characteristic in these paintings is indeed comparable to the limpidity of Emerson’s prose style in his Essays . Both exert an immense appeal upon our initial acquaintance with them, yet both eventually reveal themselves to be an elaborate artifice designed to divert attention from what is most threatening not only in Nature but in human nature as well. For an account of that difficult feature of 19th-century American life, you have to turn to the writings of Hawthorne, Melville, Poe and Dickinson, who occupy a very different spiritual universe.

It is the principal virtue of the exhibition which John Driscoll has organized at the National Academy of Design under the title, All That Is Glorious Around Us –the title comes from James Fenimore Cooper–that it provides an interesting inventory of the subjects that were of principal concern to the Hudson River painters and a useful guide to the variations in pictorial style they brought to them. He has even managed to expand the roster of the Hudson River School by including a small number of female artists and at least one painter of African descent. Yet something central to the esthetic of the Hudson River School is missing from this exhibition of small-scale pictures. No exhibition that excludes the large-scale panoramic paintings of the movement’s most ambitious talents can hope to convey the level of aspiration that made the Hudson River School such a sensation in the heyday of its popularity. Unfortunately, the intimate scale of the exhibition rooms at the National Academy pretty much precludes the showing of such oversize paintings. Some excellent examples can be seen, however, in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum just down the street.

Yet still another problem with this exhibition is that its very inclusiveness tends to diminish the stature of the movement’s most gifted painters. My own favorite among the Hudson River painters, John F. Kensett, is represented by two very charming pictures, but they are not the pictures that would allow a newcomer to this artist’s work to appreciate its most distinctive qualities. What we really need, of course, is a big monographic exhibition devoted to Kensett himself–but that is probably too much to hope for.

Mr. Driscoll makes up for some of these shortcomings by providing an excellent introduction to the entire history of the Hudson River School in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition. It is one of the best short accounts of the subject I have read, and it leaves us in no doubt why this tremendously popular movement in American painting went into decline in the 1870’s. “Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest called into question a longstanding and basic way of looking at the world; the nation had been through the extraordinary crisis of the Civil War and Reconstruction; there was massive industrialization; and the accelerated disappearance of the wilderness was increasingly evident,” and so on. In other words, what Mr. Driscoll describes as “the Hudson River School’s confident poetry of mood and jubilant sense of place” was overtaken by the realities of the modern world. What I have called the oasis of repose was no longer viable.

All That Is Glorious Around Us: Paintings From the Hudson River School remains on view at the National Academy of Design, Fifth Avenue between 89th and 90th streets, through Sept. 12.

The Hudson River Painters: Nice, but Maybe Too Nice