In the nineteenth century, America was a fledgling nation searching for its identity. The wilderness, which had been a symbol of fear and mystery in the eighteenth century, was now promoted as one of America’s most distinct and attractive features. It symbolized the freshness and potential this new world had to offer. Without the cultural history that shaped European art, many individuals sought spiritual renewal in nature.
With the invention of the steam engine, individuals were able to traverse uninhabited terrain to view America’s untamed landscape. Artists flocked to the wilderness, in particular upstate New York’s Hudson River Valley. This region was so rich with natural beauty that it influenced countless works of art. In the mid-nineteenth century, the first American school of painting emerged. These artists created a distinctive style of landscape painting that became the premier focus of art in the United States. This group of painters were known as the Hudson River School.
The Hudson River School artists regarded the natural landscape as a direct creation of God, and attempted to recreate their vision as accurately as possible, believing that it was perfect in its own unadulterated existence. They created their art with care and precision, seeking to find the most natural portrayal. Many believed the paintings were more than photographically accurate. A prominent Hudson River painter, Asher Durand, described the artist as a poet and said: “will have seen more than the mere matter of fact, but no more than is there and that another may see if it is pointed out to him.” The Hudson River painters often focused their attention on the transformation of the land from wilderness to an industrialized, urban society. Much of their art depicts the evolving relationship between man and the environment, from the power of nature to man’s dominance over land.
The mountains, hollows, and waters of the Hudson River Valley area inspired these artists to transcend physical and emotional boundaries, and enter a new realm of innovation. The Hudson River School became one of the most important contributions to the development of the American artistic tradition. Artists such as Durand, Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, Alfred Bricher, and Frederich Church documented the unspoiled perfection of the wilderness as well as the journey and progress of man in the new world. And just as the landscapes inspired the artists, so too did the paintings inspire the viewer.