Published: July 8, 2011
This summer, visitors to the Peabody Essex Museum can come inside to get closer to nature. Forty-five magnificent landscape paintings featuring rugged mountains, verdant forests and luminous sunsets will be on display starting July 30 in “Painting the American Vision,” an exhibition of works by Hudson River School painters from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.
The show, which runs through November 6, features a newly acquired painting by Hudson River School artist John Frederick Kensett.
Durimg the first half of the Nineteenth Century, a loosely affiliated group of painters, poets and writers sought to create a distinctly American aesthetic, liberated from European history and artistic conventions. What they had in common was a belief in the transformative power of nature, its ability to change and be changed and its potency as a source for individual spiritual renewal.
The works they created also demonstrated an early awareness of the importance of preserving natural sites for future generations. Thomas Cole’s iconic series of monumental canvases, “The Course of Empire” as well as works by Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, Jasper Francis Cropsey and Asher B. Durand and others, present scenery of real and imagined locations from New England to the Yosemite Valley, from Niagara Falls to South America.
In their time, the paintings of “The Course of Empire” series were considered to be the most important ever produced in the United States. In 1833, Cole was commissioned to paint a monumental group of works based on an allegorical history cycle. His imaginative depiction of the rise and fall of civilization in a single setting draws heavily upon conventions of history painting, as well as the techniques of J.M.W. Turner, and overflows with the inspirational power of the land itself.
Although Cole and other artists in his circle were primarily interested in depicting the American landscape, they sought training via artistic pilgrimages to Europe. The combination of Old World training with New World subject matter stimulated artists working during the second half of the Nineteenth Century, many of whom took their cue from Cole. The ability to faithfully represent a scene may have been passed down from European masters, but the sense of transcendent inspiration came from nature.
Durand discovered Cole, who later returned the favor by supporting his benefactor to pursue his own career as a painter of landscapes. Durand was a regular summer visitor to the wilds of New Hampshire, where he painted his most masterly image of the region in White Mountain scenery, Franconia Notch, N.H. In this work, Durand created a deep panoramic space melding the accurate impressions of the place as observed over several seasons in residence.
The painters of the Hudson River School believed that that the unmediated contemplation of nature offered opportunities for spiritual reflection and renewal †what Durand called “lessons of high and holy meaning.” The painters pursued this ideal through frequent excursions in the field to observe and sketch natural scenery. Their visual notes would find their way into complex compositions back in the studio.
The young and precociously talented Thomas Hiram Hotchkiss often accompanied his mentor, Durand, on his annual trips to the Catskills and Adirondacks. Studies made by the two painters share the same meticulous attention to the patterns and textures of plants and leaves and convey a sense of the experience of being in the outdoors.
A smoldering tropical sunset illuminates a scene of lush vegetation balanced by the snowy peaks of an inactive volcano in Ecuador. Painted soon after returning from a trip to South America, Church merged the direct observations he recorded in sketches with memories of having been in the place. This glowing landscape is the product of keen observation and poetic reflection.
In addition, the museum will display the acquisition of a key work by Kensett in concurrence with the exhibition. Acknowledged to be one of the finest works by the most prominent American seascape painter of his day, “Forty Steps, Newport, Rhode Island,” 1860 is a new addition to the museum’s collection of maritime art. The emphasis on light and atmosphere, a strikingly asymmetrical composition and an overall aura of tranquility make this a perfect fit for the exhibition, and are qualities that have mesmerized viewers of Hudson River School works for nearly two centuries.
The Peabody Essex Museum is on East India Square. For information, 866-745-1876 or www.pem.org .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm