WALKS WITH ARTISTS: The Hudson Valley and Beyond

Hudson River Museum

On view from October 5, 2017 -- January 21, 2018

Visitors in the Landscape 
In the 19th century, many American artists and writers believed that nature could be restorative, educational, and morally uplifting. This philosophy elevated the status of landscape paintings, which in 18th-century Europe had been considered one of the lesser subjects of art. Early 20th-century painters still roamed the Hudson Valley in search of inspiring views for collectors eager to bring the beauty of the outdoors inside. Armed with first-hand experience and an arsenal of artists's tools, they brought viewers on armchair journeys, but they also led the way in encouraging people to venture into the outdoors as nature tourists. Painted or real, landscapes imply an observer. 

Aaron Draper Shattuck strikes a delicate balance between human presence—the bridges, fences, nestled steeples, and rustic roads—and the lush landscape surrounding them. While the previous generation of Hudson River School painters often focused on dramatic struggle in exotic landscapes, he and his contemporaries devoted themselves to the transcendent potential of daily activities. Shattuck seldom left the familiar confines of the Hudson Valley, yet the rural nostalgia, finely observed details, and wide proportions of this painting reveal his awareness of Aestheticism and the avant-garde potential of landscape.

Two women saunter within a dense thicket of vegetation. George Inness leads us into his painting with a path and exploits complementary colors through subtle modulations, setting forth a dazzling rhythm of the reds of the umbrella, flowers, and dress of the woman on the right against the deep green backdrop of the woods.

George Inness came of age during the formation of the Hudson River School. However, Inness later distinguished himself from this group. By the 1880s, the artist adhered to the mystic philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg, seeking a divine unity in nature and man. He eschewed the detailed wilderness scenes prized by other Hudson River School painters in favor of broadly painted compositions of what he termed “the civilized landscape,” where people lived in harmony with nature. Beyond the details of the physical realm, Inness sought a divine unity in all the world’s elements. His efforts would give him the reputation of the foremost artist-philosopher of his generation.


The presence of a person in an image functions as an entry point for the viewer, and in this case, it also provides a tantalizing thrill. The dancer, precariously poised 100 feet above the Hudson, inspires the fear and awe associated with the 18th-century notion of the sublime.

Even Jordan Matter himself admitted to feeling anxious while taking this photograph. He asked his assistant to hide behind the wall and “spot” the dancer. But Evgeniya Chernukhina, also a gymnast, was calm, confident of her balance, and enjoying the view. Her pose suggests an enthusiastic salute to the Hudson River and the Palisades.

With loose, bravura brushwork and daring color choices, Gifford Beal conveys crisp, frosty air through purple and blue shadows. Not merely painting a quiet, wintry landscape to be admired, he focuses on human activity as the means to move us through the snowy woods. He depicts his hunter in both homespun and heroic terms—half the height of the canvas and shifting weight to aim the gun. The animation of the hunting dogs in pursuit of the rabbit imbues the scene with lively action, while a low stone wall, typical of Westchester County and New England, bisects the foreground and the middle ground with a strong diagonal that emphasizes the rush of the chase.


This less familiar view of the Palisades, the beach at the foot of the famed cliffs, invites us to explore the other side of the Hudson River by foot like the figures on the riverbank. Barnard H. Tyler chose to present the shoreline of the Palisades, by then the site of quarries and industry, as tranquil and picturesque, accessible by boat, and walkable.

Compared to the looming ridge, the small scale of human presence—the tourists and modest structure beyond— suggest endurance of the landscape, but the Palisades were in fact imperiled during this time. Movements to preserve the cliffs began to gather steam in this same period, an early instance of private initiative and legislation working in tandem to preserve the Palisades, a precursor of later efforts.

Bayard H. Tyler’s painting of a bridge under construction juxtaposes the leisurely activity of the straw-hatted boatman in the foreground with the labor of the construction workers in the background. Infrastructural subjects were rare for American artists of this period, and Tyler looks forward in more ways than one. His subject may not be as symbolically potent as the Brooklyn Bridge (completed in 1883), but the Washington Bridge, completed five years later, no less significantly linked upper Manhattan with the Bronx across the East River.

With its combination of stone arches and steel girders, the bridge spans not just the East River but also time— rooted to the historic riverbank, it nonetheless steps broadly toward the future consolidation of New York City to occur a decade later.

One or perhaps two shadowy figures anchor the low viewpoint in this painting of Storm King Mountain and St. Mary’s Church. The Hudson Highlands was familiar territory for Gifford Beal because his parents had a summer house in Newburgh and he painted often along both shores. Beal may have been attracted to the church, which had been abandoned in 1906, as a picturesque ruin looming above the beach. From his vantage point, the late afternoon sun bounces off the water with a blinding shimmer.

The Greek Revival Chapel of our Lady, later St. Mary’s, has been a familiar site along the river since 1833. A fire further devastated it in 1927, but in 1971 actress Helen Hayes spearheaded an effort to restore the landmark to its original appearance, without the later steeple.

This scene emphasizes human mastery over the elements of nature: the creation of modern navy fleets to control the seas. On October 1, 1909, a flotilla of warships from the U.S. and around the world paraded up the Hudson as part of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration which commemorated the 300th anniversary of European arrival and the centennial of Robert Fulton’s invention of the steamboat. Yonkers factories announced they were closing so that citizens could watch the spectacle.

It is likely MacRae, leader of the Cos Cob Art Colony in Greenwich, sketched a study for this painting just north of the current site of the Museum, then the home of the Trevor family. The building at the right is the Corinthian Yacht Club and the end of the Palisades is visible. However, the factory painted against the Palisades reveals that MacRae must have also used published photographs taken further south to assist his depiction of the destroyers and torpedo boats

Frohawk Two Feathers, the alter ego of Umar Rashid, enlarges the type of vignette often found at the edges of antique maps to create a unique juxtaposition of figures and territory. This painting is part of his series chronicling an imaginary, alternative colonial history of the Hudson Valley where “Frenglish” (French, English, and Irish) and Batavia (the Dutch) clash in the “Battle of Yonkers.”

With wit and satire, this artist looks deep into man’s never-ending conflicts in paintings filled with multiracial characters and references to hip hop, urban slang, European imperialism, and even Egyptian symbolism. Here, the Pharaoh of New York, Bonnie Prince Johnnie, strikes a pose with his generals, and the faux map of the Hudson reminds us that the underlying message of many types of landscape art was a sense of ownership.

Figures highlight the principle parts of Ralph Fasanella’s landscape, enlivening the parking lot, the supermarket, the tunnels and pathways, and the neighborhood streets with everyday activities. The Grand Union supermarket, seen at the center of Fasanella’s painting, draws the eye in with its sleek modernity: smooth geometries and well-lit glass front.

Fasanella, who started painting only in his mid-30s, paints an imaginative but nonetheless logical landscape where real landmarks mix with intuitive but clearly demarcated geographical features. Notice how his train tracks separate not just space but also time: the 19th-century forms of warehouses, older storefronts, churches, and the train station in the background and the modern supermarket with its auto-filled parking lot front and center.

A recent conservation cleaning has uncovered the original vibrancy of Fasanella’s color palette.

ELEMENTS OF THE LANDSCAPE
Whether in a meadow close to home or on a craggy overlook in the Catskills, artists often choose viewpoints that resemble a traditional compositional format established in the 17th century. Large trees at the canvas edges frame detailed elements in the foreground with a body of water beyond, progressing to a distant vista and spacious sky above. The choices artists make about types of terrain and sky, how to feature trees and water, are designed to draw us into the painting, print, or photograph—to entice us to experience the virtual outdoors.   Many of the Hudson River School painters followed this pattern, often substituting the trees with mountains along the shore to bookend the central river. Later artists explored more varied compositions—asymmetrical arrangements or open panoramas stretching edge to edge. The inclusion of man-made structures highlights the balance between nature and culture as signaled by the human presence within the landscape. Given the continued development and pollution in our own time, we cannot help but enter these works of art with our own concerns as we gain a new understanding of the viewpoints of three centuries of artists.

The remnants of piers built in the 19th century, like the ruins of Pier 51 in Downtown Manhattan depicted here, are a ghostly reminder of the importance of river trade in Manhattan’s history. Janelle Lynch’s photographs document indelible marks of mostly industrial human activity, while simultaneously being devoid of people. In little more than a decade since Lynch captured this shot, a spike in construction has transformed the shoreline from what was once a watery graveyard to what it is today.

Industry has existed along the Hudson since Colonial times, but the Hudson River School and later 19th-century artists most often chose to ignore it and paint an “unspoiled” view of nature. This subject is also rare in Joellyn Duesberry’s work. She was likely responding to the growing concern and activism in the 1980s over the pollution caused by cement factories on the river.

Except for this work and several paintings of Ground Zero, Duesberry tended to paint nature landscapes in a brighter palette and mood. Here, the grey tones of a cloudy day seem appropriate to the somber sight of a factory reflected in the river it is destroying. She completed Cement Factory before she began to live most of the year in Colorado, though she maintained a studio upstate and painted many New York scenes, including near Olana, the home of Hudson River School painter Frederic Church.

A landscape artist’s work begins with the same choices: where and what to paint. This sliver of blue sky and the meandering foreground stream in this painting suggest that a short walk might have yielded very different subjects for George J. Stengel. The site of factories and quarries would have been familiar to Stengel, who spent most of his life as a carpet designer in Yonkers.

The rocky topography of the Hudson Valley and eastward into Connecticut meant easy access to stone for building cities and towns. Nestled in the rural countryside that attracted Stengel to retire to Ridgefield were areas scarred by years of quarrying. With the sheer cut of man-made pit taking up most of his canvas and pollution billowing from multiple chimneys, the artist offers the viewer little respite from a bleak scene.

A burst of sun through a break in cloud cover moved Hobart Nichols to paint this dramatic sky over a rocky beach on the eastern waterfront of Westchester County. In the 19th century, Hudson River School painters often intended such obvious rays to suggest spiritual meaning, but Nichols seems more intent to show the effects of light on a harshly monotone scene. A meandering series of inlets and peninsulas gives Westchester’s eastern waterfront a very different character than the Hudson shore. The Long Island Sound was not a far trek for Nichols, who was part of the Bronxville Artists’ Colony and lived in the section of Yonkers known as Lawrence Park West.

Nichols displayed The Silver Sound at the National Academy of Design in 1952. Fortunately, the Museum discovered the long-lost painting for sale, damaged, and had it restored.

Holly Sears invites us to become birders as she populates the skies in prints related to a Metro-North commission for the Overpass Corridors above the tracks at Tarrytown Station. She carefully depicts Barn Owls, Short Eared Owls, and a Great Horned Owl, and in the other print Red- winged Blackbirds, Chickadees, Blue Jay, Baltimore Orioles, Cardinals, Nuthatch, Goldfinch, and a Common Yellowthroat.

Sears says the Hudson River Explorers project, “is inspired by this great river’s majesty and eloquence, and informed by its rich history of discovery, exploration, and travel .... The scenes are fantastic, magically real, yet still naturalistic. From east to west, with color and subject, the station’s hallway windows create the experience of one day—from dawn to dusk. Creatures move through the landscape both above and below the water. The plants and animals ... are largely native species, many threatened or endangered, who guide an array of exotic visitors through the watery realm.”

The sun setting behind the branches of a leaning tree casts the riverbank and sky in a haze of warm, muted colors at dusk. A recent conservation treatment allows this subtle evening coloration to be seen to its best advantage. French-born Louis Aston Knight did not visit the United States until 1905, when the artist was in his 30s. By then, he was an internationally celebrated painter of pastoral scenes of the French countryside.

Throughout his travels, Knight was drawn to the water, whether the Seine, the canals of Venice, the New York Harbor, or the Hudson River, seen here. Although friends with Claude Monet, Knight rebuked the tenets of modernist abstraction, insisting that “nature is beautiful enough to inspire masterpieces to those who are willing to copy it and to give to others the poetical effect nature expresses.”

The Hudson River waters fill the foreground and flow back to the horizon in Juan Bernal’s triptych. This study was part of his process in creating a nine-foot-wide panorama paying homage to the Hudson River School painters Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Jasper Cropsey. These earlier artists often fabricated idealized scenes using pencil or oil sketches from different locations.

Bernal, too, makes preparatory “sketches” first, but with camera and computer. Light on water and landscape are a primary focus for the artist, and he used the oil study to work out his desired effects. Whether painting the Hudson River or drops of water on a leaf, Bernal looks deeply into nature’s elemental forms and sees broader life and a larger landscape.

Anyone who has walked along a riverbank and gazed at the ever-changing patterns of light and shadow reflected in the river’s movement can recognize the basis of Ellen Kozak’s practice: fleeting optical sensation.

Visiting the Hudson River each morning, Kozak often painted with the water floating below her easel and seat, positing the surface of the water as a thin boundary between two infinite views: the sky above, and the river below. Like a Zen rock garden, the thick brush strokes on the painting’s surface suggest solidity while simultaneously pointing to the fleeting and impermanent nature of observed reality itself.

Alison Moritsugu demonstrates the disjointed relationship between humans and the environment by painting on cut sections of naturally fallen trees in the style of the Hudson River School. Moritsugu’s meticulous views create the illusion of windows into the log and illustrate the life it no longer has, or indeed the greater landscape that may also be lost. The natural cracks that disrupt the images reinforce this sense of displacement and draw our attention back to the physicality and preciousness of the log itself. Which is broken: the painting or the window through which we view the past?

Moritsugu remarks, “Painters throughout art history ... tailored their depictions of nature to serve an artistic narrative. Today, Photoshopped images of verdant forests and unspoiled beaches invite us to vacation and sightsee, providing a false sense of assurance that the wilderness will always exist. By exploring idealized views of nature, my work acknowledges our more complex and precarious relationship with the environment.

Painting these unpeopled forests from his studio on the Bowery in Manhattan, Joseph DiGiorgio celebrated nature, delving into the heart of the forest through his work. As far back as the Hudson River School, the interplay between nature and culture has been central to artistic and philosophical debates within American society.

While many of the 19th-century paintings on display reflect this debate through traditional views of an expansive landscape peopled by surrogates for the viewer, DiGiorgio’s Untitled Landscape places us in the mind’s eye of the artist: immersed completely in the wooded landscape. Our visual experience is enhanced by bands of gestural, abstract brushstrokes in radiant fall colors overlaid by a veil of pointillist dots and a strong vertical rhythm of tree trunks.

In this wintry scene, leafless trees establish an irregular vertical pattern in orange, brown, and yellow as a late afternoon sun casts diagonal shadows in cool tones along the hillside. Gardner Symons does not offer a clear pathway through the landscape like earlier artists: his view of barns and houses neatly contained within these sloping stone walls bespeaks an ordered control of the landscape that creates barriers. The walls delineate the topography of the snowy hills, and add dashes of color in surprising places.

A recent conservation cleaning showcases Symons’s command of his palette. Look closely and notice how he highlights the reds, greens, and warm browns of the lichen-covered stones.

This row of Lombardy Poplars, a landscape design staple in France and America since the mid-18th century, stands sentinel over a pastoral setting of red-spotted cows and a peaceful stream. Chauncey Ryder organizes these landscape elements to offer a balance between the upright forms of the trees and the low horizon.

From the mid-1860s onwards, artists like James McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet looked to the landscape for artistic experimentation. Ryder, having spent much of his career in France, also saw landscape as the means to explore his painterly ends. His wandering walks through France and the American Northeast produced markedly sophisticated views of rural scenery.

Jack Stuppin lives and paints in Northern California, but he grew up in Yonkers and returns periodically to his New York roots to paint the mountainous terrain first made famous by Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand. In fact, this painting belongs to a series entitled, Homage to the Hudson River School.

Though he paints oil studies outdoors, Stuppin seeks to evoke something more than realism in his finished works. Back at his studio, he makes a digitally enlarged version of a favorite plein air painting and uses it as a guide to create a surreal world filled primarily with hues of his own vision and emotional experience. His simplified forms emphasize the solidity and stasis of the topography.

Stuppin painted his initial study for Tatashu Farm at a property owned by a fellow artist. The vista is in the western Catskills, looking towards Burnt-Rossman Hills State Forest.

In 1999, Don Nice offered Ellen Keiter, one of the Museum’s curators at the time, a chance to take a literal journey with an artist. He traveled by boat from New York City to the Adirondacks, painting along the way. Being on the water gave Nice a unique perspective on the varied terrain of the Hudson’s shores, including Mount Hook, just above Nyack, depicted here.

Keiter joined the trip far enough to see him paint this watercolor: “We traveled slowly, often drifting with the current so Nice could paint. It was choppy on the water, but he claimed that the rocking of the boat made it easier, not harder, for him to work. It’s important for Nice to feel connected to the site he is painting.... I realized that while his images depict recognizable ... vistas, they also express something more personal. Each watercolor is a special tribute to the River.”

Drawing from 19th-century landscape traditions and Abstract Expressionism in equal parts, Richard Mayhew’s subjective paintings seduce the viewer through broad brushwork and intuitive tonal color choices.

Raised in Amityville on Long Island, Mayhew describes his closeness to nature as deriving in part from the spiritualist traditions of his own African American and Native American heritage. His works are the direct result of this connection to the land. Painted in the studio but inspired by his walks outdoors, Mayhew’s work transmits his own immediate experience of the environment directly to the viewer. When asked why his paintings lacked figures, Mayhew asserted, “You’re the figure.”

“The groves were God’s first temples,” wrote the poet William Cullen Bryant in his Forest Hymn, published in 1824. Asher B. Durand, friend and follower of the poet, manifested Bryant’s words through travels on foot and outdoor sketching. His renderings of the idealized American wilderness were based on his close attentive examination of nature.

In this painting, Durand combines a beautiful arboreal pathway and a sublime vista towards a glimmering river and distant mountain range, skewing the traditional symmetrical composition to emphasize the immediacy and timelessness of America’s landscape. Durand was one of the first American painters to see his native scenery not only as a vehicle for symbolic meaning but also in realist terms, for its own sake.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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