Skip to Main Content

Art Analysis: Hudson River School Landscape Paintings, 1836–1868

Use this primary source imagery to analyze major events in history.

 Suggested Sequencing


Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, Romanticism had a profound influence on music, literature, and art. Romanticism recognized the significance of emotions, the individual, and nature, and it sought to establish links among them. Romantic artists recognized that in painting landscapes, they could convey their feelings regarding a variety of issues, including the fragility of the natural landscape, the encroachment of industry and technology, and the future of the American people. Perhaps the most celebrated group of landscape painters to emerge during the Romantic era was the Hudson River School. This group, which included artists Thomas Cole, Samuel Colman, James McDougal Hart, and Frederic Edwin Church, was based in New York City but ventured up the Hudson Valley and painted the breathtaking scenery they encountered along the way. Other members of this school, such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, journeyed westward and visited mountainous regions, including the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. Their work is sometimes classified in a separate school known as the Rocky Mountain School. Unlike previous generations of American artists who copied the artistic subjects of English and Italian art by painting scenes of Europe, the Hudson River School and Rocky Mountain School painted American subjects. These American artists made a radical break from the traditional path of going to study in England or Italy. Thomas Cole, who is considered the founder of the Hudson River School, summed up his feelings about the importance of landscape painting in his “Essay on American Scenery,” a portion of which is provided here.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Why did the Hudson River School and Rocky Mountain School artists believe it was important to paint American landscapes?
  2. What are some of the ideologies of Romanticism that nineteenth-century landscape paintings convey?

Painting of an oxbow river with trees on the left in the foreground and hills to the right in the background.

Figure 1: Thomas Cole, The Oxbow (View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm), 1836.

Painting of a creek with a bridge and animals crossing. A house is visible in the background to the left; there are trees along the edge of the creek.

Figure 2: James McDougal Hart, The Old Homestead, 1862.

Painting of small sailboats and larger steam-powered tourist launches and freight boats on the river. A storm brews in the background.

Figure 3: Samuel Colman, Storm King on the Hudson, 1866.

Painting of a valley with mountains rising up on the left, trees on the right, and water between. Animals are on foreground the shore.

Figure 4: Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, 1868.

Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery,” American Monthly Magazine, January 1836 (Excerpt)

Whether he [an American] beholds the Hudson mingling waters with the Atlantic—explores the central wilds of this vast continent, or stands on the margin of the distant Oregon [a disputed region in the Pacific Northwest], he is still in the midst of American scenery—it is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity [ability to inspire awe]—all are his; and how undeserving of such a birthright, if he can turn towards it an unobserving eye, an unaffected heart! . . .
In this age, when a meagre utilitarianism seems ready to absorb every feeling and sentiment, and what is sometimes called improvement in its march makes us fear that the bright and tender flowers of the Imagination shall all be crushed beneath its iron tramp, it would be well to cultivate the oasis that yet remains to us, and thus preserve the germs of a future and a purer system. And now, when the sway of fashion is extending widely over society—poisoning the healthful streams of true refinement, and turning men from the love of simplicity and beauty to a senseless idolatry of their own follies—to lead them gently into the pleasant paths of Taste would be an object worthy of the highest efforts of genius and benevolence [generosity].

Comprehension Questions

  1. (Figure 1) Refer to the provided image. How does Cole create a division between wilderness and civilization? What does this division imply about the future of the rural landscape in the United States?
  2. (Figure 1) Refer to the provided image. In the center foreground of the painting, Cole depicted himself staring at the viewer. Why do you suppose Cole made himself so difficult to perceive, and what might his self-portrait tell us about the interaction between Americans and the natural environment?
  3. Figure 2 Refer to the provided image. Hart painted this peaceful pastoral scene in 1862. What is significant about the year in which this was painted? Why might Hart have chosen not to allude to current events in his work?
  4. (Figure 3) In the provided image, how does Colman create a division between wilderness and industry that is reminiscent of the division in Cole’s painting (Figure 3)? How does this contrast differ from the one present in Cole’s work?
  5. (Figure 3) Refer to the provided image. What do Colman’s depictions of Storm King (the mountain in the center) and the Hudson River suggest about the collision between nature and technology?
  6. (Figure 4) Refer to the provided image. In his painting of the Sierra Nevada, Bierstadt presents a landscape that is impossibly beautiful. Why do you think Bierstadt painted the mountains to appear taller and more imposing than they are in actuality?
  7. (Figure 4) Refer to the provided image. What do the presence of wildlife and the absence of humans in the painting suggest about the state of nature in the American West in the mid-nineteenth century?
  8. (Excerpt) In the first excerpt, how does Cole characterize the relationship between an American and the landscape?
  9. (Excerpt) In the second excerpt, what does Cole perceive as the obligation of Americans in consideration of the scenery that surrounds them?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Write a thesis statement for an essay that analyzes the ways in which these paintings address ideologies relating to the movement of Romanticism.
  2. Write a thesis statement for an essay that analyzes the ways in which these paintings address the rapid industrialization of the nineteenth century and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow (View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm), 1836

James McDougal Hart, The Old Homestead, 1862,_1862,_High_Museum.JPG

Samuel Colman, Storm King on the Hudson, 1866

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, 1868,_California_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery,” American Monthly Magazine, (January 1836)

More from this Category