Chasing the Hudson River School of Art
We recently spent a couple of days in the Catskill Mountains which is an area that was frequented by the Hudson River School artists in the 1800’s, The artists of this group are a major influence on my work. The idea of this trip was to find some of the locations these artists painted and add my own voice to this landscape.
During our research we found something called The Hudson River School Art trail which identifies a few locations that the Hudson River School artists painted. The clever catch phrase for this art trail is “Step into a landscape painting.” The problem with that phrase is that the 21st century Catskill Mountains are not the 19th century Catskill Mountains. When artists like Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Asher Durand, Suzie Barstow and others set up their easels to paint, they saw a near wilderness with old growth forests. Those old trees are long gone and many of the small villages and hamlets along the Hudson River have grown into small cities. What’s left of the wilderness is now well traversed by hikers and tourists.
Before Photoshop, there was Thomas Cole
It appears that the controversy over recording exactly what is in front of a photographer’s camera, or artist’s easel for that matter, isn’t new. It may have heated up with digital photography, but the argument predates photography and just may have started with the founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole. In the early 1800’s, long before the camera became a useful creative tool or Adobe developed image editing software, Cole was creating paintings that were, in his words, “Something more than mere imitations of nature.” This was to the chagrin of art benefactors like Robert Gilmor who said in a letter to Cole that, “Above all things…truth in drawing the scenes of our own country is essential.” Who was right? Thomas Cole became a significant artist who started a movement that elevated American landscape painting to a high level. His work is honored worldwide and still continues to inspire artists, including this photographer. Meanwhile, who is Robert Gilmor?
Following Two Hudson River School Artists
A good place to start following the Hudson River School around was the home of artist Frederic Church in Hudson New York. His home, Olana, is an architectural masterpiece on top of mountain that is now a New York State park. This photograph is a view of the Hudson River from Olana and one that Church also painted. The photograph is a slightly higher perspective than Church’s painting. I don’t know if he imagined the rock outcroppings in his painting, or whether they are hidden in the trees in my photograph. It is interesting to see the similarities and the differences in these two views made over 150 years apart.
Another location frequented by some of the Hudson River School artists was Kaaterskill Falls (more on that later in this post). This photograph was made close to where Thomas Cole painted almost 200 years before me in 1826. Cole was able to look out on an expanse of unspoiled forest from the top of the falls. In 2023 that same view had a number of homes and roads, so I chose a perspective further from the edge of the falls.
Hudson River School artists Asher Durand and Suzie Barstow created works that they called woodland scenes. These paintings don’t contain iconic subject matter, just intimate forest scenes in the Hudson River Valley. Their ability to capture these places and make them as powerful and beautiful as the iconic landscapes has inspired my work in the New Jersey Pine Barrens for many years.
Kaaterskill Falls and Creek are a highlight of the Catskills and visited by so many people that the only time to have it to yourself is very early in the morning. Kasterskill Falls, the tallest in New York, has an upper and lower section. It has appeared in a number of the Hudson River School artists paintings, especially Thomas Cole who lived near by.
Thomas Cole also painted the Upper Kaaterskill Waterfall from under an overhang behind the falls. I wanted to do something similar but when I was there the path to this spot was very wet and slippery. So, in order to get a unique perspective like Cole, I used a drone to photograph the falls. You have to wonder what Cole would have done with one of these aerial marvels.
The Art of the Selfie
Thomas Cole was a ground breaking artist in many ways, but he may also have been the first person to make a selfie. In this 1836 painting called “The Oxbow” Cole appears in the scene looking back at the viewer. By the way, this painting is renowned for a lot more than being an elaborate selfie. If you want to learn more, look at this short YouTube video interpreting this painting’s significance.
This photograph of Kaaterskill Falls, was made with a drone. A drone pilot is supposed to keep their aircraft in sight while it is in the air. As a result, I sometimes appear in my photographs. Normally I’d remove myself in post processing, but I decided to follow Thomas Cole’s lead and leave myself in the image. Can you see me? If so, let me know in a comment at the end of this post.
In the 1800’s or the 2000’s it’s all about light
Landscape photographers obsess over the golden hours at sunrise and sunset. The world does look its best bathed in the warm light at those times of day, but we as landscape photographers and artists should be capturing light at all times of day. In looking at the work of the Hudson River School you don’t just see sunrises and sunsets. The light they captured in the golden hours is as powerful as the light they captured at other times of the day. This is something we landscape photographers should embrace. Leaning on the golden hours just might be a crutch. Not that we shouldn’t do it, but to really hone our craft, maybe we need to look for that magical light at all times of day and night.
This is a New Jersey Pine Barrens photograph that was inspired by the above painting. I was tempted to use artificial intelligence to put a few cows walking along the bog.
I hope you enjoyed this little tour of the Catskill Mountains both in the 21st and 19th centuries. For many years I’ve been influenced by the the work of the Hudson River School artists, so this trip to upstate New York was something I have wanted to do for a long time. We all have artists and photographers that influence and inspire us. That influence should foster creativity and not imitation. Being in the Catskills 150 to 200 years after the artists that influence me, made it impossible to imitate. Instead, I wanted to see what inspired them in the Catskill Mountains and then create something that honored their vision of the American landscape.