Hidden in Plain Sight - Symbolism and the Hudson River School
By Thomas J. Illari
The Hudson River School artists were in search of an art form that would allow them to celebrate that which set America apart from Europe and this they found in the splendor of the American landscape. Over the course of the 19th century there was a remarkable change in attitudes toward nature, discoverable in all the arts, especially literature, painting and landscape architecture. It culminated in the Romantic landscape tradition in Europe and America in the 19th century. It was the golden age of landscape painting marked by a major change in the view of the relationship between man and nature.
The early Hudson River artists searched for the sublime and modified what they saw when they later applied the landscape to their canvases. They viewed the sublime as a manifestation of God’s power, to impress the mind with a sense of awe. They believed that there was a moral purpose for being an artist. Their goal was to recreate, not necessarily reproduce or just copy, what they found in nature. Their belief was that art itself is the process of creation and fundamentally religious. Rather than painting the actual landscape as first viewed by the artist their goal was to create their own allowing time to diminish unnecessary details. They permitted themselves to embellish on those components of the landscape they wanted to emphasize by adding various elements, symbolism, and at times carefully hidden meanings within their landscapes. In the nineteenth century both the artists and their audiences were aware of the tradition of using symbols and they were fully able to understand and incorporate these into their works.
For example, in Thomas Cole’s series The Course of Empire he rejects the American nationalist pride by predicting its inevitable decline by showing in a series of five paintings the progression from wilderness (The Savage State) to pastoral (The Arcadian State) to the empire (The Consummation of Empire), it’s demise (Destruction) and the landscape returning to wilderness (Desolation). This series could be taken as a warning that if we do not learn from history we are doomed to repeat it. And perhaps the next time our civilization collapses, it very well could be the last. Cole portrays the inevitable course of the empires of the past that have fallen into corruption, decadence and who brought about their own demise. It is a lesson in five panels outlining the historical course of empire building and a warning of what may be in store for his newly created country.
In Cole’s scene from Last of the Mohicans he uses enhanced geological features including imagery of a large phallic next to a dark cave to expose the sexual tensions in the popular James Fenimore Cooper novel that inspired the painting.
In Coles painting The Oxbow the painting can almost be divided in half with the left side being an untamed wilderness with a storm passing through. On the right side the storm has passed and everything is calm. It is an ideal rural scene, but the removal of trees has left scars on the hillside. On closer inspection, those scars are in the shape of Hebrew letters. For the viewer they spell Noah. Looking down, from God's perspective, they same shapes spell Shaddai, or the Hebrew word for God, or Almighty. Is Cole suggesting that the landscape be read as a holy text?
Aside from some of the obvious messaging, many Hudson River School artists used storm imagery that was originally used to represent the dark side of the sublime. However, as the 19th century evolved the storm imagery grew to symbolize civic discord during the civil war and to represent the coming crisis and tension of industrialization and technology that threatened a sanctified landscape.
Other symbolic images such as lakes were used to link sky an earth, man with God. To Cole, the sky represented “the soul of all scenery”, the sublime in the landscape. Waterfalls represented unceasing change, everlasting duration and power. The blasted tree represented the cycle of nature – death coexisting with growth and life. The absence of ruins in the paintings signified America’s freedom of monarchy and corruption. The trees of the American landscape represented primeval forest, a sort of Eden, emphasizing that America was untouched, pure as the day of creation. The trees had a primitive quality to set them apart from the destitute European forests and they gave forth the autumn colors like no European had ever seen. Cole referred to trees as “they are like men…they exhibit striking peculiarities, and sometimes grand originality.”
The figure of a man in the landscapes was shown as small part of the larger environment that implied the insignificance of humans within the natural world. However, despite how diminutive man may be in nature, these artists knew well that humans could devastate the land. Many paintings were used as a plea for preservation of the American landscape. Examples include scenes of railways plowing through a picturesque landscape, open fields ravaged by man and tree trunks clearly identified as being cut down by the axe.
Thomas Cole’s The Picnic is a scene depicting sublime nature and man’s place within it. Even here you see evidence of man’s dominate position with the tree stumps in the foreground cut by an axe. This was Cole’s protest of the advancement into the wilderness. Wood was a basic commodity for homes, railroads and expansion of the American industrial age and the wilderness was being chopped by the ax at a rapid pace.
Artists of the Hudson River School added other symbols some of which were considered specific to the American landscape. Native Americans represented the wilderness and the savagery associated with it, deer as a symbol of wilderness before the arrival of man and the cow as a symbol of man cultivating the land and his co-existence with nature.
In pastoral landscapes, portraying the life in the country in an idealized and conventionalized manner, the Hudson River School artists celebrated the dominion of mankind over nature. The scenes are peaceful, often depicting harvests, gardens, lawns with broad vistas, and healthy livestock. The view was that man has developed and tamed the landscape which then yielded the necessities we need to live as well as providing beauty and safety. A classic example of this is the Pastoral Landscape by Asher Brown Durand.In sublime landscapes nature is shown at its most fearsome. There is an awe and reverence for the wild. Humanity is small and impotent in front of raging waters and violent storms. These works can also be uplifting, in a spiritual way. The sublime emphasizes God’s dominion over humanity. An example is The Catskill Mountain House: The Four Elements by Thomas Cole.
Whatever messaging or themes that may be present in these landscape paintings, most of Hudson River School artists had one common message to convey - morality. Despite their different styles and subject matter, their purpose was a common one. It was to preserve their new nation’s beautiful and natural scenes. They wanted to express man’s harmony with nature, and viewed their new country as a gift, a second chance for mankind to live in the new Eden of the untouched American wilderness.
As you view these 19th century landscapes it is of interest to think about how the artists have contributed to our view of the natural world and its significance in our lives even today. The era of the Hudson River School was complex. They created some extraordinary works leaving behind their vision of man’s association with nature. Almost two hundred years later their legacy continues and their revelations stand as strong today as it did when they first rambled through the Catskill Mountains in search for the sublime and picturesque.