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Landscapes of the Soul

The world was created by twin brothers, one gentle, one cruel, according to the Seneca Indians, who inhabited what is now western New York State. Each brother went his own way creating the world in his image. The cruel brother made the world rocky and hard with mosquitoes so large they could knock down saplings. The gentle brother created a paradise with deer so fat they could hardly move, trees that dripped maple syrup and rivers that flowed both ways—just put your canoe in and your destination was always downstream. Each of the brothers later modified the other’s work; the resulting world was a mixture of paradise and hell. The rivers were beautiful and full of fish, but they flowed only one way.

But it turns out that far to the east of the Seneca’s territory, in a different part of New York State, the Lenape tribe lived on a river they called Muhheakantuck, “The river that flows both ways.” Today it’s called the Hudson River. It flows both ways because the tides control its flow for more than 100 miles of its course. And the beautiful valley through which the river flows, from the Adirondack wilderness in the far north, through dense forests and rolling farmland, down past the Catskills, past the cliffs of West Point and the high Palisades of New Jersey to Manhattan Island at its mouth, has been recognized as a kind of paradise from the time of earliest settlement.

This is the land of Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow, creations of Washington Irving, who, in the early 1800s, made the quaint Dutch settlements of the Hudson River Valley famous all over the world. Irving was one of the first American writers to choose truly American characters, situations and places as his subject.

Then came the painters. Tired of European subjects and European values, American painters in the early 19th century sought indigenous inspiration, an American vision. They found it in the liquid highway that could carry them from the busy streets of New York City to dreamlike, Arcadian landscapes in the course of a long afternoon. There they discovered the American landscape, its riverside towns and farms, the wild mountains looming in the background. They came to be known as the Hudson River School. They created the first American landscape vision. Some 45 of their magnificent paintings, still eloquently moving today, are coming to the Columbia Museum of Art. Nature and the Grand American Vision: Masterpieces of the Hudson River School Painters will be on display from November 17 to April 1.

In the early 19th century, Americans were trying to figure out who they were. Were they merely Europeans transported to New England, New Amsterdam, New York, New Jersey? So much of this nation was stamped with the world the immigrants had left behind but still found on this side of the Atlantic: Virginia named for the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth; Charleston and the Carolinas for King Charles I; Georgia for King George II. Surely there was something unique in the American identity.

Thomas Cole, a 24-year-old in New York City, spent the autumn of 1825 in the Catskill Mountains and along the Hudson River. Amazed by the colors of the fall leaves, he painted what he saw and felt, the grandeur of the wilderness, the harmony of man and nature as farms nestled against the woods in the shadow of the mountains, little boats sailing in the current on the broad river. This was landscape not as a background for history paintings, as in the European style, but landscape as subject. This was an American vision: The wilderness was our native soil and national soul; the settled farmland was the fertile garden that civilization could shape from it; the natural world was the beautiful way the divine revealed itself to us.

Cole put a few paintings from his trip in the window of a New York book store. Three members of the New-York Historical Society saw and purchased those paintings in 1825, bringing Thomas Cole to the attention of the world and, thus, giving birth to that loosely connected group of painters who over the next 50 years would constitute what came to be known as the Hudson River School of painters. That first purchase of three paintings also gave birth to the New-York Historical Society’s collection of Hudson River School paintings, one of the largest in the world. The exhibition at the Columbia Museum of Art is on loan from the New-York Historical Society collection.

The 45 paintings are organized into four thematic groups. The American Grand Tour features paintings of the scenic destinations that attracted painters and tourists throughout the 19th century—the Hudson River itself, the Catskills, Adirondacks and White Mountains, Lake George, Niagara Falls and the New England countryside. American Artists Afield features Frederick Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill and Martin Johnson Heade, artists who sought new inspiration after 1850 as the wilderness receded from the Hudson River Valley and the East. Huge audiences waited in long lines to view their thrilling panoramic views of Yosemite, the American West and the Andes.

Of course, American artists still visited the sacred ground of Italy, a principal source of western culture. Dreams of Arcadia: Americans in Italy shows how Cole, Jasper F. Cropsey, Stanford F. Gifford and others reacted to the Old World and its long-civilized landscape. The exhibition ends with Grand Landscape Narratives, featuring Cole’s five-painting series, The Course of Empire. These paintings all focus on the same physical location, as if the artist stood at the same spot in five different centuries. The natural features remain recognizable in each of the canvases, but everything man-made changes as the series proceeds from the state of nature to a pastoral ideal, then to a great city in all the glory of a prosperous empire, then to that city and empire in decline, and finally to that city as a desolate ruin.

Built into the American love of nature, which the Hudson River painters helped popularize, is the irony that we tend to destroy the very things we love. Having fallen in love with the vistas these artists painted, tourists began to crowd onto steamboats and into hotels built along the river and in the once-remote mountains. Soon factories, towns and cities spread across the hills. Wilderness turned into farmland and farmland into tracts of houses. The delicate American balance of the wilderness and the garden couldn’t hold and urbanization soon pretty much obliterated both—not only along the Hudson, but in our own time along such distant rivers as the Chattahoochee and the Savannah.

But the dream of that balance lives deep within the American consciousness, planted there, in part, by these painters and the vision they were able to leave on canvas. Thanks to them and like-minded contemporaries—Emerson, Thoreau, Muir—an environmental movement grew in America ultimately protecting wilderness areas through national and state parks. In the 1890s New York State, for example, established huge tracts in the Catskills and Adirondacks, almost 7 million acres in all, that must remain, by state law, “forever wild.” (The Adirondack Park alone is larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Great Smokies National Parks combined.) Conservation efforts such as folk-singer Pete Seeger’s along the Hudson have helped keep much of the river looking as beautiful now as it did when Thomas Cole boarded that steamboat in 1825.

American scenery, Cole wrote, “is a subject that to every American ought to be of surpassing interest; for, whether he beholds the Hudson mingling waters with the Atlantic, explores the central wilds of this vast continent, or stands on the margin of the distant Oregon, he is still in the midst of American scenery—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!”

The paradise known as America, displayed in 45 paintings in Columbia until April, will be well worth the 60-minute drive up I-20 across some pretty views of the South Carolina midlands.

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