Under the sort of autumn sky that 19th-century painters of the Hudson River School would brush across their canvases, a group of Franklin & Marshall students arrived early at F&M's Phillips Museum of Art one gray, rainy morning to study a few of the artists' landscapes.
Art History Professor Michael Clapper directed the 24 students in his "American Art" class to spread out in the museum's Leonard and Mildred Rothman Gallery. He told them to select one of the 24 works by artists such as Asher Durand and Josephine Walters, find what they liked about the painting, and then explain why to the class.
Since the exhibition's opening on Sept. 13, the F&M community has found much to enjoy in "The Hudson River to Niagara Falls: 19th-Century American Landscape Paintings from the New-York Historical Society." Faculty in art, history, and science are using the landscapes in various contexts, from aesthetic to historic to environmental.
"The thing about this exhibit is that it crosses so many areas," Clapper said, before leading his class into the gallery. "It's being used across the curriculum."
Thirteen F&M professors, from American Studies, to Spanish, to Theatre, Dance and Film, are using the exhibit, which runs through Dec. 15, in class this semester in what is a fundamentally liberal arts approach -- taking material from one subject to explore and find perspective in other subjects through experiential and communal learning.
As Clapper's "American Art" class gathered around Jervis McEntee's autumn-like "Over the Hills and Far Away," a rustic scene of forests and open land unfolding to distant mountains, sophomore biochemistry major Nicole Maurici explained what she liked about the 1878 painting.
"I like the overlapping elements and the vastness it creates," Maurici said.
Clapper, chair of the Art and Art History Department, said Hudson River artists painted largely out of 19th century concerns about modernity trampling nature as machine-driven progress created tension between rural and urban life.
"This work resonates because it speaks to issues we're still dealing with now," he said. "The artists and their patrons mostly lived in cities. They were stressed out. They were losing touch with nature."
On the Verge of Development
F&M Associate Professor of Biology Daniel Ardia had his "Conservation Biology" class visit the painting collection and examine how the artists sought to portray an ideal view of landscapes that at the time were being lost to development.
"The Hudson River exhibit is a wonderful example of a moment in time when the country went from agrarian to industrial," he said. "We really approached it as 'visual culture:' How does 'visual culture' intersect with people's perception of nature?"
One of Ardia's students, Matt Reif, a senior biology major, is writing a paper on conservation biology and ethics. To illustrate his point, Reif is using Durand's "Adirondack Mountains," painted in 1870, and one Hudson River School painting not in the exhibit, Thomas Cole's "The Oxbow," from 1835.
"The argument I'm making is that the Hudson River School came at a time when we, as a nation, were aggressively expanding westward into the great American wilderness," Reif said. "The art shows there is an innate beauty in those landscapes that deserves preserving."
The paintings also capture eastern New York's watershed -- river, tributaries, land and people -- before the region was developed, said Michael Kulik, director of the Public Policy Program in the Department of Earth and Environment. He's using the exhibit for students in his first-year seminar, "Great Watersheds."
"I like them to get a lot of different perspectives, " Kulik said. He had students study William Miller's "On the Bronx River," from 1887, where urban and rural environments meet, and Durand's "View of the Shandaken Mountains, New York," a pastoral setting featuring cows drinking from a stream, painted in 1853.
"You can see in the paintings the beginning of encroachment on the natural resources," Kulik said. "It kind of suggests the impact people have had on the waterway and the watershed."
To illustrate the evolution of society's environmental awareness, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Elizabeth De Santo is using the paintings in her "The Environment and Human Values" course.
Infusing landscapes with romanticism and spirituality, the Hudson River painters began a discussion about man's relationship with nature that has evolved to today's preservation of ecosystems, De Santo said. "Bringing the students into the exhibit and showing them the paintings really hammered that home," she said.
The students gravitated toward three particular paintings: Sing Sing prison on the Hudson (Joseph Vollmering's "View on the Hudson Near Sing, Sing," 1845-1850); an undeveloped Central Park (Jervis McEntee's "View of Central Park," 1858); and Niagara Falls (Louisa Davis Minot's "Niagara Falls," 1818).
The students, a few of whom live in the New York region, were taken aback, De Santo said. "Some of them were generally moved by the paintings," she said. "They all said in their papers that this was strong evidence that we should be better stewards of nature."