Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Hudson River Landscapes at Peabody-Essex

Twisted! Thomas Cole's painting (right) c. 1850, is very similar in composition to that of Claude's, c. 1650, (left). They're even the same size. 

The Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, MA, is hosting a traveling exhibition of nineteenth-century American landscapes on loan from the New York Historical Society. Salem is the only New England stop on the tour, and definitely worth a visit, if only to view the paintings by Thomas Cole (not to mention all the wonderful pagans in their witchy-warlocky-Octobery outfits). In a few days, I'll post a report on Cole's works, which includes a masterpiece series rarely shown to such advantage titled "The Course of Empire." Painting - The American Vision, closes on November 6.

But it so happened that just the day before my visit, I'd been studying the nineteenth-century English landscapists (Cole was born in England) and their relationship to the old masters, in particular their debt to Claude Lorrain.

Claude, as he's called, perfected a branch of northern European landscape painting in which the artist fashions "perfect" pastoral scenes more ideal than any in fact. As a young man, Claude led a footloose life in and around Rome, where "pure" landscapes, despite the popularity of those by Dutch masters, were frowned upon as unworthy of serious painting. Claude got around this by having small figures added to his paintings, sometimes even by other artists, thus providing a narrative pretext, often mythical, sometimes Biblical, for the imaginary scenery he loved to paint. Tastes change, and the world soon came to his doorstep, and Claude became one of the most celebrated - and imitated - landscape painters in all of history.

For proof, one need look no further than the Hudson River paintings being shown at the Peabody-Essex. Hudson River pioneer Thomas Cole is generally lauded as "the father of American landscape painting," and so he was, but in the zeal to establish the Hudson River School as the first native art movement in America, the debt to European models is often overlooked. And the more one looks, I'm afraid, the more deep that debt appears. 

Reduced to a formula, Claude's paintings (which are gorgeous masterpieces, don't get me wrong) consist of a broad, horizontal expanse of bucolic countryside pervaded by a warm, golden glow, as of evening, framed by foreground trees and tiny figures in the foreground, with the background receding dreamily into hills bathed in atmospheric violets and blues, often some water in the middle-to-foreground space.

Like his friend Nicolas Poussin, Claude's composites regularly included imaginary ruins suggestive of the pastoral tradition established by Roman writer Virgil. Not only did Thomas Cole do the same, but as shown by a comparison of the two paintings below, he adopted the whole raft of Claudian conventions, including composition, light, warm greens, and the handling of foliage.

Claude Lorrain,  Landscape with Merchants, 1635
Thomas Cole, Dream of Arcadia, 1838
Even the proportions of Cole's most Claude-like paintings shamelessly match those of Claude's. The following FOUR nineteenth-century American paintings from the Peabody Essex show follow basically the same horizontal, Claudian format of framing foreground trees, watery middle distance, and atmospheric mountains receding majestically in the background distance. They're by Asher B. Durand, Jasper Cropsey, Thomas Hill, and Albert Bierstadt respectively.

Even the one Inness on view (below) doesn't stray radically far from the same European motifs. 

Of course, none of these painters would be considered an "imitator" of Claude or Poussin or the Dutch old-master landscapists like Jacob van Ruisdael and his circle. They each updated the old models with North American scenery and their own 19th century sensibilities. That's what artists did for centuries, until the 20th century established the cult of originality, in which works of "striking originality" were supposed to spring like Athena, fully formed, from the intense brow of the maverick individual. And today, of course, it's all about "infringement."

I still believe that studying and copying the techniques of worthy masters is the best way to learn anything. It's just sort of striking to me, I guess, that a show titled "The American Vision"can actually on closer inspection be found to owe such a serious debt to the traditional European conventions of landscape art. 


  1. Wonderful article Christopher. Insightful observations, beautifully written.

  2. Hello Christopher,

    Wonderful post! Thanks for sharing your thoughtful insights.

    I saw this show the week end it opened. It's really wonderful. Everything from the quotes on the walls, to the wall colors, to the stenciled patterns of trees on the walls enhances the grand beauty of the paintings.

    It's a rare treat to see Cole's entire Course of Empire cycle together, and alone it's worth the price of admission not to mention the rest of the gems that are there.

    It's hard to underestimate Claude's influence in the history of landscape painting. He influences me even today. I think that is because his "formula" if you will, brings together archetypical images in the Jungian sense that human beings respond to. The pattern you describe of "horizontal...format of framing foreground trees, watery middle distance, and atmospheric mountains receding majestically in the background distance" seems to resonate universally with the human mind in relationship to nature or "the vista" or "view". We all want the room or the office with "the view" and this Claudian formula is generally what we have in mind. Even Oriental art has a close counterpart to the Claudian formula, though their use of perspective and space is a bit different.

    Based on the enthusiastic response I saw to this exhibit by reading the comments in the guest book at the PEM tells me that people still respond positively and strongly to Claude's formula. I believe it will forever be a part of landscape painting. We owe Claude a great debt for his contribution to the glorious profession of landscape painting!

  3. Jan, I couldn't agree more - what a wonderful perspective you bring to Claude. How interesting to consider the ideal "vista" - that sense of harmony, balance, and expansive space - as archetypal imagery. I've always accepted descriptions of Claude as the painter of the "ideal landscape," but I hadn't really paused to consider any deeper implications of that. No doubt, it plays into that very real sense of the majestic one gets from great Hudson River School paintings. And it's nice to be reminded that the profession of landscaping painting is, indeed, a glorious one!

  4. Hi Carmen -
    Thank you so much for your complementary post!

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