Sheldon Museum of Art


Date of this Version



Catalogue of an exhibition of Nineteenth Century American Landscapes presented under the auspices of The Nebraska Art Association, The University of Nebraska Art Galleries, and the Nebraska Public Library Commission (1966).


Introduction: "In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,-no disgrace, no calamity (leaving my eyes) , which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,-my head bathed by the blithe air, and up-lifted into infinite space,-all mean egotism vanishes. . .. I am nothing, I see all; the currents of the universal Being circulate through me. I am part or parcel of God."

These words of Ralph \Valdo Emerson from his essay On Nature express the sentiments of the early nineteenth century American landscapists, known as the Hudson River School. The term, originally intended as an insult, was meant to characterize this group of painters as presumptuous provincials. The painters were not presumptuous provincials, apeing European models; they were genuinely affected by the American landscape. "Never need an American," said Washington Irving, "look beyond his own country for the sublime and beautiful of natural scenery." The Hudson River Valley, the Catskill Mountains, and the White Mountains were beautiful. A boat trip up the Hudson River was considered by European travelers, such as Fanny Kemble, equal to, if not better than, a trip down the Rhine. The landscapes were wild, uncultivated, untouched by human civilization. The Hudson reminded the sentimental traveler of Jean Jacques Rousseau's noble savages, and the theory that life in nature was pure and simple. The traveler became, for a time, Paul or Virginia, Atala or Rene. The special distinction of the American painters, unlike their European counterparts, was that they were able to paint from nature that was truly wild. The United States was still largely the land of the forest, primitive and unspoiled by civilization.

The first Hudson River School painters worked primarily in New York State. Thomas Doughty (1793-1856) , the oldest, was by trade a leather tanner and merchant who in 1820 quit his profession in favor of painting. He was self-taught, but by no means naive. His compositions are conventional; a repoussoir of trees on either side of the canvas which, like wings on a stage, focus the viewer's attention on the middle ground. However, Thomas Cole (1801-1848) was the first American to bring a personal vision and style to the art of landscape painting. Born in England, he immigrated with his family to Ohio, where he worked with his father as a wall-paper designer and manufacturer. When that business failed, Cole set out on his own as an unsuccessful painter of portraits who could not please his clients. He then turned to landscape, painting scenes along the Hudson and in the 'White Mountains, painting scenes known for their minute profusion of detail, filled with light and dark contrast which emphasized the mysterious wonders of nature.