Art Analysis: Hudson River School Landscape Paintings, 1836–1868
Use this primary source imagery to analyze major events in history.
- Students can use this activity with the Henry David Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” 1854 and Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1855 Primary Sources to develop a better understanding of Romanticism and the issues that were of concern to transcendentalist writers and other Romantic thinkers in the mid-nineteenth century.
- Why did the Hudson River School and Rocky Mountain School artists believe it was important to paint American landscapes?
- What are some of the ideologies of Romanticism that nineteenth-century landscape paintings convey?
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].|
- (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?
- (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?
- 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?
- (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?
- (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?
- (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?
- (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?
- (Excerpt) In the first excerpt, how does Cole characterize the relationship between an American and the landscape?
- (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
- Write a thesis statement for an essay that analyzes the ways in which these paintings address ideologies relating to the movement of Romanticism.
- 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 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cole_Thomas_The_Oxbow_(The_Connecticut_River_near_Northampton_1836).jpg
James McDougal Hart, The Old Homestead, 1862 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James_McDougal_Hart_-_%27The_Old_Homestead%27,_1862,_High_Museum.JPG
Samuel Colman, Storm King on the Hudson, 1866 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Colman_Storm_King_on_the_Hudson.jpg
Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, 1868 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albert_Bierstadt_-_Among_the_Sierra_Nevada,_California_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery,” American Monthly Magazine, (January 1836) http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/detoc/hudson/cole.html