In October 1825, Thomas Cole, a young, unknown artist, boarded a Hudson River steamboat at the New York City docks and traveled about 100 miles north to the village of Catskill, where he hiked into the mountains to sketch.
Upon his return the following month, he produced from his sketches three large landscape oil paintings of the Catskill wilderness that caught the attention of the New York art scene and launched an American art movement.
Selected masterworks of Cole and 11 other artists of the Hudson River School will be shown this fall in the Leonard and Mildred Rothman Gallery of the Phillips Museum of Art in the Steinman College Center off College Avenue at Franklin & Marshall College. "The Hudson River to Niagara Falls: 19th-Century American Landscape Paintings from the New-York Historical Society" runs from Sept. 13 to Dec. 15. The exhibition's sponsors are Jennifer M. and Mark S. Kuhn '85 and the Thomas A. and Georgina T. Russo Family Foundation.
This is the first time the exhibition has been shown outside of New York. It comprises 24 paintings, produced between 1818 and 1890, of landscapes, historic sites and natural wonders of the Empire State -- from the Hudson River, to the Catskill and Adirondack mountains, to Niagara Falls on the western boundary of the state.
The paintings are drawn from the venerable collection of the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan, the oldest museum in New York. This exhibition has been organized by the New-York Historical Society. It is part of the "Sharing a National Treasure Program," said Linda Ferber, vice president and senior art historian of the 209-year-old society.
"This is the first of our travel shows to visit a campus outside of New York State, [and] we are especially delighted to share these important paintings with the Phillips Museum at Franklin & Marshall College," Ferber said. "One of the goals of 'Sharing a National Treasure' is to bring important exhibitions to college and university museums where they can provide rich teaching opportunities, whether lectures, symposia or, best of all, courses organized around their content."
David Schuyler, F&M's Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of Humanities and American Studies, is incorporating the exhibition in his foundations course, "Rivers and Regions," and his "American Landscape" class. Michael Clapper, art history professor and department chair of art and art history, will use it in his "American Art" class, and professors of American Studies Louise Stevenson and Alison Kibler will include it in their "American Studies Senior Seminar." Fourteen other classes also plan to use the exhibition in their coursework.
Themes of discovery, exploration and settlement are reflected in the landscapes, and people are depicted comparatively small against the enormity of the nature around them. Among the paintings to be displayed are Cole's "Sunset View on the Catskill," from 1833, and Asher B. Durand's "View of the Shandaken Mountains," from 1853.
These two painters and their works were critical to the movement's growth, said Schuyler, author of the 2012 award-winning book "Sanctified Landscape: Writers, Artists and the Hudson River Valley, 1820–1909."
Cole was a deeply spiritual man, seeing the divinity reflected in nature. He emigrated in 1818 from England at age 17, and had been an itinerant portrait artist in cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh before he journeyed up the Hudson River and into American cultural history.
Durand, one of three patrons who purchased the landscapes Cole had completed upon returning from the Catskill Mountains in 1825, was an engraver. By the 1830s, though, he had become a landscapist. His detail in trees and rocks helped define Hudson River School painting. He would go on to mentor other painters.
Schuyler said the phrase "Hudson River School" was never used by the artists. It was a term coined by an art critic in the 1870s to denounce the paintings as old-fashioned. The artists viewed themselves as landscapists, and they used their paintings as testaments to the importance of appreciating and preserving nature, Schuyler said.
"They were united by a shared interest in exploring the American landscape, and it all started with the Hudson Valley," he said. "Here we find not just the first truly American expression in art, but the seeds of the conservation movement of the late 19th century, and of environmentalism in our own time."
Teri Edelstein, consulting director of the Phillips Museum of Art, praised Eliza Reilly, retired director of the museum, and Schuyler for making the exhibition possible.
The exhibition will open with Ferber of the New York-Historical Society delivering a lecture, "The Hudson River to Niagara Falls: Landscape Views & Landscape Visions," at 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, in Bonchek Lecture Hall of the Ann & Richard Barshinger Life Sciences & Philosophy Building. A reception will follow in the Sally Mather Gibson Curriculum Gallery of the Phillips Museum of Art in Steinman College Center.
Later in the fall, Nancy Siegel '88, associate professor of art history at Towson University, will deliver a lecture titled "Suspend Your Body from the Limbs of the Trees: 19th-Century Women Paint the American Landscape" at 4:45 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4, in the Curriculum Gallery.
Included in the exhibition are works by two of the few women in the Hudson River School, "Pool in the Catskills" by Josephine Walters, the only woman known to have studied with Durand, and "Niagara Falls," Louisa Davis Minot's 1818 visual record of her visit to the landmark three years earlier.
Lastly, a panel discussion, "Looking at Landscapes," will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, in the Curriculum Gallery. It will feature three historians talking about specific painters and their works: Clapper on Durand's "View of the Shandaken Mountains"; Thomas Ryan, president and CEO of LancasterHistory.org, on Jacob Eichholtz's "Portrait of Serena Mayer Franklin"; and Schuyler on Jervis McEntee's "View in Central Park, N.Y.C," which relates to Schuyler's work on Frederick Law Olmsted, co-designer of Central Park.
Also, in the museum's Nissley and Dana galleries, related works from a private collection will be exhibited with works from the museum's holdings and will feature McEntee's "Grey Day in Hill Country" and "Autumn in the Catskills," as well as "View in the Catskills" by T. Addison Richards.
The integration of the museum with the curriculum is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Guided tours of the Hudson River exhibition are scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Sept. 17, Oct. 15 and Nov. 19.