Technical Prowess, at the Service of the Spiritual

Regarding a museum-quality exhibition of nineteenth-century landscape painting.

Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), A Trail through the Trees. Oil on board 20½ x 29 7/16 in.
Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), A Trail through the Trees. Oil on board, 20½ x 29 7/16 in.

A show of nineteenth-century landscape painting is on view for a few more days at Questroyal Fine Art, housed in a sprawling apartment overlooking Park Avenue and 79th Street. The exhibition is a beauty titled Voyeurs in Virgin Territory: The Hudson River School Painters, and this writer was the sole visitor on a recent late afternoon. In other words, the setting is an ideal one for the contemplation of art.

The Hudson River School—the name was coined as a term of disparagement—now refers to several generations of American landscape painters who comprised our first major art movement. That said, the influence of European painting, in the forms of Classicism and the Barbizon and Dusseldorf schools, is pervasive. A powerful impetus for mid-century artists may have been this country’s natural splendor, but the native training was still thin, and Italy, France, and Germany beckoned. The first schools to teach landscape painting didn’t open here until Impressionism was in full flower.

Albert Bierstadt, recognized for panoramic scenes celebrating the American west, was one of those who was trained in Dusseldorf. His Trail through the Trees offers a finely drawn subject, with a dedication to the expressive possibilities of naturalism that’s strongly reminiscent of the great German Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich. What distinguishes Bierstadt is the optimism of his ambitions—for him the abundant foliage of a great tree symbolizes a land of plenitude.

Foliage at fever pitch was the province of Jasper Francis Cropsey, our unabashed celebrant of autumn. His fondness for highly chromatic displays can grate; when he exhibited in London, an English audience questioned the credibility of his palette, and Cropsey had leaves mailed from home to verify his observations. Autumn Sunset pushes the envelope in typical fashion, yet the scene is more intimate than spectacular, and the effect is genuinely moving.

Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823–1900), Autumn Sunset, 1895. Oil on canvas, 12 1/16 x 20⅛ in.
Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823–1900), Autumn Sunset, 1895. Oil on canvas, 12 1/16 x 20⅛ in.

One of the show’s highlights is Sanford Robinson Gifford’s Sketch of Hunter Mountain, Catskills, a small composition so perfectly resolved as to make the term “sketch” misleading. Gifford was adept at painting rapidly, with wet-into-wet passages and fluid, precise drawing—that many of the school’s painters were so gifted is sometimes forgotten. A Sketch of Hunter Mountain is comprised of distinct planes, each of which read as atmospherically true. The painting’s details hint at a somber undercurrent—the Civil War had ended a few months before this was painted, and at that time artists often included tree stumps and dead branches as symbolic allusions to the decimation of soldiers.

Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880), A Sketch of Hunter Mountain, Catskills (Twilight on Hunter Mountain), 1865. Oil on canvas 10⅛ x 16⅞ in.
Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880), A Sketch of Hunter Mountain, Catskills (Twilight on Hunter Mountain), 1865. Oil on canvas, 10⅛ x 16⅞ in.

Gifford’s fellow Luminist, John Frederick Kensett, is best known for coastal views that reconcile a Pre-Raphaelite commitment to observation of nature with a spare abstraction of geometric precision. The gentle waves, billows of cumulus and human presence of New England Coastal Scene with Figures hardly detract from the impression of serenity that is characteristic of Kensett’s work.

John Frederick Kensett (1816–1872), New England Coastal Scene with Figures, 1864. Oil on canvas, 14¼ x 24 3/16 in.
John Frederick Kensett (1816–1872), New England Coastal Scene with Figures, 1864. Oil on canvas, 14¼ x 24 3/16 in.

The epic note is perhaps best struck here by William Stanley Haseltine’s Coast of Sori. Like many of the Hudson River School painters, Haseltine traveled widely. Sori is a seaside municipality in northwest Italy, and Haseltine’s apparently fanciful view, except for the addition of modern buildings on the foreground ledge, looks much the same today. The artist’s early works established what would be a life-long interest in rugged coastlines, initially painted with a hard-edged clarity akin to that of Kensett. Haseltine, like many artists of the Hudson River School’s second wave, evolved from a meticulous rendering to a looser approach that evidenced a variety of European influences.

William Stanley Haseltine (1835–1900), Coast of Sori, 1893. Oil on canvas, 25 3/16 x 45 5/16 in.
William Stanley Haseltine (1835–1900), Coast of Sori, 1893. Oil on canvas, 25 3/16 x 45 5/16 in.

George Inness’ progression as a painter was decidedly personal, and the influence of Hudson River prototypes was confined to his earliest efforts. Inness’ career resolved in Tonalism, but to leave it at that is unsatisfactory. His Monte Lucia, Perugia, is a sketch, yet herein are the elements that make Inness’ work singular: a convincing sense of deep space, elegant formal design, and an implication of profoundly spiritual qualities. Along with the technical aptitude of the Hudson River School’s artists, it is the tacit divine presence in nature that draws us to their work. For Bierstadt, Moran, and Cropsey, spiritualism is represented theatrically; for Kensett and Gifford, it is manifest in sublime illumination; Inness finds it in the vapor of atmosphere.

George Inness (1825–1894). Monte Lucia, Perugia, 1873. Oil on canvas, 13 7/8 x 19 3/4 in.
George Inness (1825–1894), Monte Lucia, Perugia, 1873. Oil on canvas, 13⅞ x 19¾ in.

“The highest art,” Inness said, “is where has been most perfectly breathed the sentiment of humanity. Rivers, streams, the rippling brook, the hill-side, the sky, clouds—all things that we see—can convey that sentiment if we are in the love of God and the desire of truth.” This could serve as a mission statement for the painters of the Hudson River School, whose best works, while rooted in the documentation of landscape, transcend specific time and place.

Voyeurs in Virgin Territory: The Hudson River School Painters is on view until April 11 at Questroyal Fine Art, LLC, 903 Park Avenue, Third Floor.

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