The Worcester Art Museum presents the landscape as national love letter
WORCESTER — As the wonders of the American landscape fostered a newborn tourist industry in the early 19th century, Bostonian Louisa Davis Minot traveled west to view Niagara Falls.
“The roar deepened, the rock shook over my head, the earth trembled,” she wrote in an 1815 essay in North American Review. “It was some time before I could command my pencil.”
She mastered her pencil, and then her paints, ultimately crafting two paintings of the falls, the only known works by Minot. Her mighty, roiling “Niagara Falls,” dated 1818, is the signature image of “The Poetry of Nature: Hudson River School Landscapes From the New-York Historical Society,” at the Worcester Art Museum through Nov. 25.
This lovely, small show of about 40 paintings is a Cliff’s Notes version of the first quintessentially American style of painting — albeit missing a necessary chapter on the luminous landscapes of Frederic Church.
Minot was likely unknown to a clubby group that included Thomas Cole and Asher Brown Durand who tromped through the countryside, finding spiritual succor in the landscape and ascribing a gleaming national identity to it.
Art historians say the Hudson River School — a moniker applied by snarky critics as the style faded from fashion decades later — began in 1825, when Cole first ventured up the Hudson. He had grown up in an England increasingly choked by industrialization and escaped into the American wilderness.
The landscape, he wrote a decade later, belonged to every American. “It is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity — all are his; and how undeserving of such a birthright, if he can turn towards it an unobserving eye, an unaffected heart!”
Cole’s style was, indeed, one of affected hearts and exclamation points, a love letter to his adopted homeland.
On that first trip, he sketched the Catskills. He returned home to New York and set to painting. At the time, landscapes were considered a third-rate genre, less weighty than history painting and portraits. But in his ardor, Cole applied the epic quality of history painting and the specificity and intimacy of portraiture to nature, and in so doing elevated the genre to signal the breadth, hopefulness, and grandeur of a nation.
He hung those early canvases in a bookseller’s window. Durand and a couple of friends found them and snapped them up. That same year, artists met at the New-York Historical Society to discuss founding a school that could define an American idiom. In 1826, the National Academy of Design opened, and landscape painting was officially taken up as a vital way to express the American experience.
Louisa Davis Minot’s paintings predated that, but her “Niagara Falls” lauds the same majesty the Hudson River School painters found in the landscape. It looks down over the gorge, lifting us off our feet as if thrown by the water’s hurtling plunge. A pair of small figures perched on a rock in the foreground shows us exactly how tiny we are in the face of such force.
Cole’s major work here, “Catskill Creek, New York,” is very different: quiet water mirrors the sunset and distant, shadowy mountains. A tree in the foreground has been felled. A scout prowls the shore; a trail of smoke rises. Humanity is about to impinge on the generous, generative wilderness.
Durand, who has several works on view, inherited Cole’s mantle as the leader of the Hudson River School after his death, in 1848. Where Cole covered large scenes and beckoned the eye with faraway vistas, Durand, following the English critic John Ruskin’s exhortations to be faithful to reality, keyed into detail.
Many of his paintings feel marvelously cloistered. You can almost smell the soil, leaves, and bark in “Group of Trees,” in which sunlight warms a jagged, fallen trunk as other trees lean over it, veritably concerned.
Art played a key role in tourism and vice versa. Durand, Cole, and several others worked as engravers before they went all in with painting. Books and pamphlets depicting the wonders of the American landscape prompted travel and art collecting and spawned a middle-class art market.
Thomas Chambers appealed to those collectors, copying lithographs on canvas. His “Lake George and the Village of Caldwell,” with bold hues and muscular contours, doesn’t strive for the sublime. Instead, it’s cozy and welcoming, leading us down a road toward a village full of white homes and smoking chimneys.
Cole’s heroic style of landscape painting helped shape a peculiarly American sense of entitlement toward the land. Albert Bierstadt famously took the style west, and it helped promote Manifest Destiny, then a romantic notion and now a dark chapter in American history. “The Poetry of Nature” doesn’t address this, nor need a show of this scope, which doesn’t travel farther west than William Louis Sonntag’s “Morning in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia.”
But there is a Bierstadt, painted, like so many works here, in upstate New York. “Autumn Woods, Oneida County, State of New York,” made in 1886, as American painters deserted the Hudson River School style for modernism, glows with the glories of the season. Bierstadt made it for the 1887 American Exhibition in London, no doubt to show off Cole’s point that in fall, “the American forest surpasses all the world in gorgeousness.”
Hudson River School painting described a dream of America long since complicated by issues of power, environmental degradation, and infighting. “The Poetry of Nature” reminds us that the original dream remains. Still surpassing. Still gorgeous.
THE POETRY OF NATURE: Hudson River School Landscapes From the New-York Historical Society
At Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, through Nov. 25. 508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org