Americans take pride in nature. Despite our suburban sprawls and major urban centers, few places feel more “American” than our national parks. We boast a variety of landscapes, from forests to mountains to swamps, that have inspired whole industries of leisure-time activities, and plenty of American authors have devoted chapters to the restorative powers of nature. But that idea of nature as a place to recharge is something that Americans adapted early on, and was reflected by the works of the Hudson River School.
In the 1830s artists like Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand were just beginning to define the Hudson River School of painting, taking trips into the Catskills to sketch and become inspired. “There was a strong cultural belief at the time, and certainly shared by Cole and Durand, that a retreat into nature was a refuge, a healing endeavor,” says Linda S. Ferber, Senior Art Historian at the New-York Historical Society, and curator of the upcoming exhibition Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School. “It’s really where the idea of ‘recreation’ comes from. We see it today as playing games and picnics, but if you think of the literal meaning, it speaks to earlier beliefs in the healing and spiritually uplifting benefits of leaving the city and going into nature.” However, the idea of nature-as-calming was still quite new. “Centuries before,” says Ferber, “a retreat into nature would have been something dangerous.”
Works like Cole’s and Durand’s both reflected and inspired a boom in picturesque tourism, with new innovations like steam travel making it easier than ever to take a steamboat up the Hudson or a train into the wilderness. And as a growing middle class had more leisure time for activities of this nature, so did they have more of a taste for works of the Hudson River School. After all, if they could not take the trip themselves, at least they could see what they were missing. And though the landscape is much changed today, at least we have these paintings to see what we may have missed.