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Forty-five magnificent paintings from the rich collection of the New-York Historical Society will be on view at the Columbia Museum of Art this fall, beginning November 19, 2011 and on view through April 1, 2012 in a major traveling exhibition Nature and the Grand American Vision: Masterpieces of the Hudson River School Painters. Though individual works are very seldom loaned, these iconic works of 19th-century landscape painting are traveling on a national tour for the first time and are circulating to four museums around the country as part of the Historical Society's traveling exhibitions program Sharing a National Treasure. The Columbia Museum of Art is the first stop in the South.

"The Museum is delighted to bring this extraordinary exhibition to Columbia, giving visitors from around the Southeast the opportunity to see incredibly beautiful works by highly skilled painters of the 19th century,” Karen Brosius, executive director, said. “We are grateful to the New-York Historical Society for sharing this superb American collection for the first time and to the Blanchard Family for their leadership gift to bring this beautiful exhibition to our state and community."

The presentation in Columbia is made possible by the Blanchard Family.

During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, a loose-knit group of artists and writers — who collectively became known as the “Hudson River School” — forged the first American landscape vision and literary voice. That vision, still widely influential today, saw the natural world as a source of spiritual renewal and an expression of an emerging national identity. It was first expressed through the majestic scenery of the Hudson River Valley.

Portrait of Thomas Coleimg. 1Thomas Cole (1801-1848) is the leading artist associated with the Hudson River School, and is widely credited as being its founder. An English émigré, Cole arrived with his family in Ohio in 1818, where he learned the elements of painting from an itinerant portrait painter. Earning few commissions for portraits, Cole gradually moved east. He settled in New York City in 1825, and shortly afterwards sailed up the Hudson River for the Catskill Mountains, making sketches along the banks of the Hudson. Cole produced a series of paintings which were spotted in a bookstore window by three influential artists, garnering him instant acclaim and widespread commissions.

Cole’s style was marked by dramatic forms and vigorous technique, reflecting the British aesthetic theory of the Sublime, or fearsome, in nature. This technique, virtually unprecedented in American landscape, expressed a growing appreciation of the wild native scenery which was explored throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century.

img. 2 Nature and the Grand American Vision explores the evolution of the Hudson River School through four thematic sections. Within these groupings, we see how Cole and his followers visually conveyed powerful ideas and ideals about nature, culture, religion, and history to a fledging Republic, one still searching for a collective national identity.

The first section of the exhibition, The Grand American Tour, features paintings of the Catskill, Adirondack, and White Mountain regions, long celebrated for their scenic beauty as seen in such natural wonders as Lake George and Niagara Falls, as well as man-made historic sites. These were the destinations that attracted both artists and travelers.

The second section, American Artists Afield, contains works made during the latter half of the century by Hudson River School artists who sought inspiration further from home. The paintings of Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill and Martin Johnson Heade illustrate how these painters embraced the role of artist-explorer, thrilling audiences with images of the awe-inspiring landscape of the American West, Yosemite Valley, and tropical South America.

Dreams of Arcadia: Americans in Italy features luminous canvases wrought by Thomas Cole, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Sanford Robinson Gifford, and others celebrating Italy as the center of the Old World and the principal destination for Americans on the Grand Tour through Europe. Viewed as the storehouse of Western culture, Italy was a living laboratory of the classical past, offering a survey of the artistic heritage from antiquity. It also provided a striking contrast to the untamed wilderness of North America.

img. 3In the final section of the exhibition, Grand Landscape Narratives, all of these ideas converge in Thomas Cole’s epic five-painting series, The Course of Empire (c. 1834-1836). Through this sweeping visual narrative, Cole traces the evolution of a great civilization from an untamed landscape to its ultimate decay into ruin. Through these iconic works — equally heralded at their time of creation as they remain today — Cole provides a cautionary tale and explores the tension between Americans’ deep veneration of the wilderness and their equally ardent celebration of progress.

That celebration of progress ultimately would grind to a halt nearly a quarter-century later, as the nation became engulfed by the flames of Civil War. In the years following the war, the aesthetic orientation of the United States abruptly shifted from Great Britain to the Continent, especially France. The appeal of figure painting grew somewhat at the expense of landscape, but the face of landscape painting itself altered with the influence of the softer, more intimate French Barbizon-style. By the turn of the twentieth century — perhaps coincident with the deaths of Church and Bierstadt in 1900 and 1902, respectively — the Hudson River School had all but vanished.

New-York Historical SocietyThis exhibition has been organized by the New-York Historical Society and is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

  • img. 1: Thomas Cole, American painter; 1845 source
  • img. 2: Asher Brown Durand, White Mountain Scenery, Franconia Notch, N.H., 1857, Oil on canvas, The Robert L. Stuart Collection, S-105
  • img. 3: Thomas Cole The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire, 1836, Oil on canvas, Gift of The New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts