Hudson River Art

Hudson River Museum

For nearly two centuries artists, collectors and local residents have regarded the Hudson River Valley as synonymous with beautiful and unique American scenery. The Hudson River Museum’s collections—planned, preserved, studied and displayed for 90 years—are grounded in this beautiful landscape that inspired the Hudson River School painters.

This virtual collection exhibition highlights paintings related to the river and valley, including contemporary depictions, which have been a primary collecting goal for the past ten years. We hope Google Art Project viewers enjoy this chance to see and think about ways art can illuminate the narrative of a river and the people living beside it, as well as spark thoughtful discussion about our past, present and future relationships with the world around us.

The Historic River
The traditional birth date of the Hudson River School is 1825, when Thomas Cole gained the attention of the art world with paintings of the Catskills, produced after a trip up the Hudson. Painters in the Museum’s collection, especially John Bunyan Bristol, were influenced by these early works. Paintings of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains stimulated public interest in American art and helped launch a fad for nature tourism.  Wild areas, untamed by man, also evoked spiritual associations—a strong thread in art of the Romantic period. 

It is hard to overestimate the importance of Hudson River scenery for amateur, as well as professional, artists in the 19th century. Van Zandt’s panoramic vista of the entrance to the Hudson Highlands is an early depiction of a scene that became ubiquitous for generations of artists painting the river. In the late 18th century, British artists developed panorama painting, which became not only a popular form of entertainment, but also the ideal expression for a new, all-embracing way of seeing the landscape. The winding path of the Hudson River through the Highlands offered unique vantage points for broad views encompassing both banks of the river.

Despite repeated attempts over the past few decades, no definite information has come to light about A. Van Zandt. Nevertheless, the artist’s adroit handling of the watercolor medium and skillful creation of aerial perspective suggest formal art instruction.

Pride in the American landscape also encouraged many artists without formal training to paint the Hudson River in their own unique, naive styles. John Douglas was one of these artists. In the large painting in this gallery, he depicts an artist at work on a river view. The Highlands panorama he chose has been one of the most depicted Hudson River views, and it is particularly interesting that the artist he includes is a woman. I wonder if he intended her to be a particular person-- a family member, friend, or colleague. In the Victorian age, many women studied painting as a genteel pursuit, but very few achieved recognition as professional artists.

Craggy trees and stormy skies were typical Hudson River School motifs used to emphasize cycles of life and the sublime presence of a Divine force in the landscape. John Bunyan Bristol lived in the Berkshires, but traveled far and wide to find other landscape subjects, including to the Hudson River. In 1892, he exhibited In the Fishkill Mountains at a painting gallery in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The Palisades in the background make this image easily identifiable as having been painted not far from the spot where the Hudson River Museum now stands. The Museum’s spectacular view has been a favorite subject of artists since the 1700s.

George McCord still lived in Yonkers with his parents when he painted this scene. He had gazed across the Hudson at the spectacular rock face for years and probably knew its profile by heart. From this viewpoint, the orange foliage seems to rise above the cliffs. In the distance, his fainter autumn colors mark the point where the Palisades turn into rolling hills.

In painting this long view from the Williams estate, Samuel Colman took advantage of the topography along the Hudson, with its strong pattern of north/south hills. From northern Irvington to past Croton, we still see a rural area full of beautiful nature and livestock left to roam through estates. The adventurous Colman painted from the American West to Morocco but he lived in Irvington in the 1860s and often returned to the subject of the Hudson throughout his career.

Bayard Tyler depicts a less familiar view of the Palisades, the beach below with the cliffs rising up dramatically in the background. Besides erosion, the Palisades remained untouched until the 19th century when its rock became valuable as construction material and even as target practice for ship gunners. Whole cliffs began to topple as quarries were established on the river’s edge. The private initiative and legislation that saved the Palisades was one of the nation’s earliest grass roots preservation efforts.

Man & the River
The Hudson River Valley was a busy corridor of transportation, farming and industry, though some artists selectively edited this development.  In fact, the idealization of wilderness was directly related to the growth of urbanism and industrialism, and the related issues of pollution and social problems. By the mid-19th century, estates lined the Hudson from Riverdale to Albany, and many artists began to include human elements of river traffic, farms, towns and recreation in their paintings.  These paintings reflected a desire to reconcile progress with nature, to idealize a "middle ground" between wilderness and urban life. 

The Hudson River was a vital transportation corridor, not only for commerce, but also, in the summer, for painters traveling north by steamboat in search of sublime and picturesque landscape scenery. James Bard’s meticulous detail and lengthy inscription celebrate, as well as document, this handsome steam vessel. The artist specialized in ship "portraits” his entire career and worked near the Manhattan piers to be near potential clients. He frequently featured the Hudson River as a backdrop, and Francis Skiddy had the additional embellishment of a painting within a painting—a miniature view of the Hudson Highlands on the paddlewheel box.

Julian Davidson specialized in naval battles and other dramatic paintings of ships, so it is not surprising that the highlights of this painting are the many different types of vessels showing the river's bustling activity. The scene includes boats powered by steam and sail, as well as a rowboat with fisherman catching shad in a seine, or dragnet.

The beauties of the Hudson River Valley were always within easy reach of fast-growing, urban New York City, and much of Westchester County’s development depended on its connection with New York City, from the water system to trains. William Hahn gives us insight into the hustle and bustle of Union Square over 100 years ago. The building in the background is the Everett House Hotel, where the Trevor family, who lived at Glenview overlooking the River (now part of the Hudson River Museum), would rent an apartment for the winter to be near Manhattan social events. Commuter James B. Colgate, who was Trevor’s business partner and also lived in Yonkers, owned this painting and would have often passed such scenes of busy New York street life.

Bankers like John Bond Trevor, who built the house that became the first home of the Hudson River Museum, could live across from the Palisades and easily commute by train to Wall Street. The fact that so many wealthy residents, like Trevor, valued their Palisades views ultimately led to their preservation.

The river and cliffs feature prominently in this tinted photograph, called a Bonnaudtype, of the Trevor house created around 1886. The complicated process, patented in France by J.B. Germeuil Bonnaud and for use the United States by The Bonnaudtype Company of New York, captures the colorful view as delicately as a painting.

Painters added trains to steamboats for their summer sketching trips. Many of these artists lived in the New York area, where during the rest of the year they could see the Palisades. Harold Faye had a passion for the railroad and depicted it many scenes. Here, he used the Palisades as a backdrop for sketches of trains zooming around the bend at Spuyten Duyvil. He developed this one into a lithograph. Faye was able to make such a sweeping view by sketching from the newly completed Henry Hudson Bridge. Fascinated with how modern technology was changing the scenery, he made several sketches of the bridge’s construction in progress, which are also in the museum’s collection.

The proportions of Samuel Colman’s watercolor paper reflect the influence of the panorama format. His subject shows that painters were often just as interested in industry as in picturesque scenery. Down at the water's edge, he captured a grittier view of Hudson River life than in many paintings with a more idealized point of view. Here, nature meets progress, as we see the natural Palisades on the left and a developing Yonkers on the right. With power from the Saw Mill River, the village had a busy commercial waterfront even before the arrival of the railroad 20 years before this view. By the 1870s, Yonkers 4.5 miles of riverfront were a busy jumble of wharves, storage sheds, train tracks and factory yards, but also lively boat clubs.

The Modern River
The Hudson River’s artistic legacy has remained vital long after painters widened the scope of their subjects and travels and the Hudson River School fell out of favor.

Charles Vezin created a study of glassy water and ice. The title, Drifting, is apropos, as the eye is drawn across the painting’s surface. Vezin was attracted to the magnificence of the unspoiled nature of the Palisades and its startling contrast and proximity to the burgeoning metropolis of New York City. Here, he creates an elegant goodbye to American Impressionism with his signature soft pinks and blues, a style increasingly at odds with the sharpness and pointed social commentary of a new generation of artists.

Gifford Beal studied with William Merritt Chase, but by 1940, he mixed his American Impressionism with Modernistic sensibilities. He captures the intensity of fall along the Hudson with broadly brushed paint, and contrasts of warm and cool colors, curved and straight lines. He and his bother, painter Reynolds Beal, spent their childhood in the town of Newburgh. Later Gifford recalled the time and setting as idyllic and, although known for a wide variety of subjects, returned often to his beloved Hudson.

Billowing smoke and booming industry show the landscape of the Hudson River transforming in the early 20th century. Artists painted the convulsive changes in the New York metropolitan area and its rivers, which linked American Modernism and Hudson River School painting. In hailing the new, including factories, these artists created a new vocabulary for their century. Daniel Putnam Brinley’s mature style is a vibrant mélange of impressionism and the flattened forms and structural concerns of Modernism. He exhibited at Alfred Steiglitz’s Gallery 291 and helped organize the 1913 Armory Show.

This fantastical composition makes the Dobbs Ferry grocery store at center, now a Stop & Shop, seem much closer to the Hudson River than it really is. Ralph Fasanella, a self-taught artist, reveled in large, busy scenes with many figures and complex settings. His colorful cacophony was the vehicle for social and political concerns. Growing up in a working class Italian immigrant community in Greenwich village, he was keenly sympathetic to the struggles of oppressed groups. He was a union organizer in Westchester County and, upset by the factory closings, said, “I used to go out there and hang around and get ideas for paintings. But they are not around anymore, so I end up with a pizza parlor or a bowling alley.” Or a grocery store…

Bannerman’s “Castle” on Pollepel Island in the Hudson Highlands has inspired artists for nearly a century. The romantic ruin, prominent from many viewpoints, carries an aura of antiquity, but was actually built in the early 20th century by businessman Francis Bannerman and used to store historic weapons. Sylvia Sleigh spotted the “folly” on a 1970s train trip to Albany. It captured her imagination and this 70-foot panorama became her most ambitious work. The castle ruin reflects the underlying nostalgia of her painting, which commemorates a picnic with friends from New York art world. The scene also includes portraits of herself and her husband, art critic and curator Lawrence Alloway.

The Museum’s contemporary Hudson River paintings illustrate the connections between old and new Hudson Valley art. George Kelly, Sylvia Sleigh, Don Nice and Bill Sullivan all followed the paths of the Hudson River School painters, but from differing perspectives. Like many earlier artists, Kelly knew nothing dramatizes fall foliage like a sunset over the river on a clear day. The Croton-on-Hudson artist specialized in Hudson scenes for the last 20 years of his life. He used vivid hues and color relationships to build form and banished black paint as well as outlines from his work.

Bill Sullivan lived in the heart of the Hudson Valley and his vision of river drew its inspiration from the intense coloration in the paintings of Hudson River School painter Frederic Church. Like many of these earlier painters, Sullivan painted the Catskill Mountains and Niagara Falls, as well as the more exotic volcanoes and waterfalls of South America. He painted this scene at the John F. Kennedy Marina just below the Museum. The sunset hues may be amped up from “real life,” but evening skies nearly as dramatic are seen regularly from the Museum.

Mt. Hook represents the northern end of the Palisades formation and its protected parkland. As far back as the 1880s, hiking groups from Westchester and New York City have crossed the Hudson River to hike to the top of the Palisades and on the trails along the ridge. As seen here, the view from the River and the base of the cliffs emphasizes their soaring height. In 1999, artist Don Nice exploited this viewpoint by boating up the River and painting along the way. His watercolors capture the sunny colors and immediacy of his experience.

Credits: Story

Curator-
Laura Vookles, Chief Curator of Collections, Hudson River Museum

Photographs-
Jason Weller, Senior Art Technician, Hudson River Museum

Writing Assistant & Google Coordinator-
Tara Dawson, Development Associate for Communications, Hudson River Museum

Produced by-
Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, NY

Credits: All media
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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