American Grandeur — Hudson River School at PAFA

Although most of the Hudson River school artists were associated with Hudson River Valley and its surrounding areas and won their fame in New York city, the current exhibition — Public Treasures/Private Visions: Hudson River School Masterworks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Private Collections at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) is pertinently displayed in its historical landmark building,  built for celebrating indigenous artworks at the centennial exposition.

Before I entered the special exhibition, the galleries at PAFA showed a strong influence of European Academy. Starting with Benjamin West, whose two supersized allegorical paintings flank each side of the stairway, generations of American artists went to Europe for artistic training. Although West claimed that it was native Americans who taught him painting, one of his early portraits (at the age of 19) in the gallery does not differentiate him from other itinerant painters. Not only did West directly mentor Trumbull, Stuart and Peale, the pattern for the later generation was settled. Frank Duveneck, William Merritt Chase and John Henry Twachtman went to Munich while Robert Henri studied under William Bouguereau.


View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836 Thomas Cole
View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836 Thomas Cole, From Wiki Commons

The Hudson River School, on the other hand, is a native fruit of America. Neither Durand, nor Cole studied in Europe. Along with those itinerant  painters, they reflect pragmatic and problem-solving attitude and craftsmanship that are so characteristic of American greatness. In the dramatic vistas of nature, they have found the artistic strength that could match the civilized European counterparts.  But unlike the itinerant portrait painters who were mostly concerned with keeping commissions by pursuing the likeness of unfamiliar sitters, these painters believed in art as facility to edify people that American greatness is its wilderness of the landscape, given by God.

“View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm”, painted in 1836  reminded me the moral significance of Cole’s paintings. I was attracted first by the juxtaposition between storming sky above the foreground wild mountain and the tamed colonized pasture magically lit under the golden light, then I spotted the painter himself climbing up to the bluff. Later, Susan Couch, a museum docent, pointed out more river on the left edge,  which can hardly be noticed because of the dark cloud and foreground forest, but perhaps soon if the viewer endures the weather, it will be shining like a mirror. The preservation of American wilderness and the progress of civilization toward prosperity — obviously contradictory objectives in modern eyes, were equally lauded in one painting. Cole would never question the resources of American wilderness and grandeur are limited and fragile.

On the other side of the wall, Asher Durand’s “The Beeches” is another painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I always sense a kind of moral superority from Cole’s paintings, which can either lead to desire to an intellectual discourse or desire to evade the chance of being schooled. But Durand’s paintings sooth the eyes and mind like refreshing  breezes, and there is a kind of intimacy that I seldom find in Cole’s large canvases. In “The Beeches”, viewers are NOT on top of the vistas and enjoying the god-eye panorama, but inside nature. If Cole dramatized the cloud and sky in most of his paintings, Durand’s depiction of foreground vegetation is both scientific and poetic, always a signature character in his over atmospherical paintings.  Durand, who also believed that nature was an ineffable manifestation of God, demonstrated  the power of creation in the beauty of leaves, vines and mosses. Trained in science, I don’t buy it; yet I am convinced by its artistic merits.

Asher Brown Durand (1796–1886)  The Beeches, 1845  Oil on canvas; 60 3/8 x 48 1/8 in. (153.4 x 122.2 cm)  Bequest of Maria DeWitt Jesup, from the collection of her husband, Morris K. Jesup, 1914 (15.30.59)
Asher Brown Durand (1796–1886) The Beeches, 1845 Oil on canvas; 60 3/8 x 48 1/8 in. (153.4 x 122.2 cm) Bequest of Maria DeWitt Jesup, from the collection of her husband, Morris K. Jesup, 1914 (15.30.59) From Metropolitan Museum of Art

The title of the exhibition indicates that the paintings are loaned from both Met and private collectors. Some of the private-owned paintings are so stunning that if I were the chair of Crystal Bridges, I would probably begin to start calling immediately. “Mists in the Yellowstone” by Thomas Moran was painted in 1908, more than 30 years after the place  was designated as a national park. It intrigued me by its apparent Western muscularity and untamed force. The unpredictable patterns of mountains, rocks, mists and clouds and the devoid of any human traces showed a different attitude toward nature, when the nation reached the stage of closure of the frontier and industrialization, such brute-force of nature defies the human interference and deserves preservation in its pristine condition.

In 1858, after two years’ abroad, Sanford Gifford, for the first time camped on the rocky summit of Mount Mansfield at Vermont with the fellow artists Richard Hubbard and Jerome Thompson. They claimed that “the place equal in interest to Mount Washington, and in every way a charming spot.”  The painting by Gifford in the exhibition is “Mount Mansfield” from the famous Manoogian Collection. A similar painting was deaccessioined by National Academy of Design last year. This is the painting that I lost the sense of my whereabouts and was carried away to breath the morning moisture in the summer morning at Mount Mansfield. It is the painting that I knew that I love it without even having the desire to defend the unconditional allegiance.

Today much of the nature near Hudson Valley has been encroached upon by urbanization. But the exhibition reminds people of what was the national identity of a young nation —  the space, beauty, and unspoiled land that spoke of national destiny, spiritual renewal, and endless possibilities.

The exhibition will be shown at PAFA until September 30, 2009.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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