The great outdoors and a river, what we can certainly call artistic muses for an entire generation of American painters from the mid-19th century
“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness, as contrasted with a Freedom and Culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society”. He was likely far from any city, in his house in the woods of Concord, in the hinterland of Massachusetts, with his eyes still full of boundless landscapes, the author of these words, the writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau. The opening words of «Walking» do not have a certain date, although they were certainly was written between 1851 and 1860. These are the years when the American painters from across the ocean, frustrated by the comparison with their European “colleagues”, taking refuge in something that was all their own: the great open spaces.
Therefore, the “Hudson River School” was born, which takes its name from one of its “inspiring muses”, the Hudson River, which flows through the State of New York. This is not the Hudson that flows into the Big Apple, of course, but rather the river that flows from the Adirondacks, crystalline masses that make up the northern outcrop of the Appalachians, where the group of artists went to paint en plein air.
This is the profile of those slopes that emerge in the distance in Thomas Cole’s series of paintings «The Course of Empire». In these years, when the American frontier was moving towards the west and the “Yankees” were preparing to collect on their world power, here is the warning: everything, sooner or later, passes.
These works are made up of five panels that show the evolution (and the fall) of a civilization from the “state of nature”, up to the moment in which only the only remains are the legacies and footprints of cities. With great love for the classical world, Cole attempts to bring back the theme of the arcadia and stages a spectacular decline, in which the real protagonist is the river, a power able to erase anything with the power of its waters.
This admiration for the Hellenic spirit also returns to the chained Prometheus, in which the giant appears to be a prisoner, “set” by Zeus to a wall of a Caucasus mountain that more closely resembles some northern California peaks (and not surprisingly, the painting found its home in the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco). The realism of the landscape creates an alienating, dreamlike effect, yet there is also a political message, identified immediately by the critics: the Titan’s struggle that gave the knowledge and understanding to mankind is the same as those who, in the 19th century along the shores of the Atlantic, had fought for the abolition of slavery.
Disciples of Cole, as well as those who emulated him, in the following years created Hudson River School, based on paintings without men or women. The figure of mankins is completely annihilated by the enormity of the natural environment: be it Niagara Falls immortalized by Frederic Edwin Church, the Sierra Nevada, populated by deer-shaped herds of microscopic proportions by Albert Bierstadt, or those New England winter landscapes that were so dear to Mortimer Smith.
This was an important cultural action that had real consequences – it became impressed in the memory of their compatriots, the places made famous by the painters of the Hudson River School were protected with national parks, established at the end of the century by President Theodor Roosevelt. To pass on that lesson of another author, widely read by this generation of romantic artists, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship”.