Tag Archives: Hudson River School

The Grand Landscape Pt. 2: Thomas Moran

The second part of the grandscape troupe (of which there are more than two, really) features Thomas Moran. Moran was born in England but became one of the most identifiable and popular members of the Hudson River School. He started as an engraver but found it tedious, worked in watercolor, and later produced some oils on the same scale as the ones we saw with on the Albert Bierstadt post. He shared a studio with his marine artist brother Edward and became an illustrator for the popular magazine Scribner’s Monthly. 

Thomas Moran February 12, 1837-August 25, 1926

 Moran is one of those artists that resound with me for reasons beyond, but still directly related to, his art. Moran was part of Ferdinand Hayden’s Yellowstone Expedition for the USGS. Geology and the History of Science and expeditions are one of the reasons I have become so involved in and with art of the American West. Having spent my honeymoon in Yellowstone, Moran’s rendering of places I have seen make it even more fun. As well as understanding that he was first and foremost an artist, you must understand how essential his works were in helping establish Yellowstone as the national park we all know and love today.

The Golden Gate

 The images that Moran painted were not true representation of nature, but an amalgam of the best of what he had seen. He also had the added benefit of traveling and working with the expedition’s photographer William Henry Jackson. Essentially a realist with romantic tendencies Moran never painted a true transcription of Yellowstone, but moved the scene and stirred the emotions. The artist and the photographer worked together, the photographs setting the realism and the painting and color setting the romantic tone that sold the idea of the park to congress.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (6’x10′) 

 Moran was highly influenced by an earlier English painter J.M.W. Turner. Turner’s use of light is echoed in many of Moran’s oils if not his watercolors. Luckily Moran stopped just short of the full dissolution into pure light that marked Turner’s later work.

Joseph Mallord William Turner April/May 1775-December 19, 1851

The Dogona and San Giorgio Magiore  Turner-1834

Norham Castle at Sunrise Turner-1835

Rain, Steam, and Speed-Turner 1844

You can see how Moran captured Turner’s view of the importance of light without dissolving his paintings into just light. A useful adjustment for someone that was working with a western expedition trying to sell the west to congress for parks and to the public for tourism. Incidentally, there is a new biopic coming out this year (2014) that follows Turner’s turn to painting the purity of light. I was looking forward to it before I knew that Moran was influenced by Turner, now I think it might be even better.

Back to Moran. The photography and the art proved that the boiling mudpots, the geyers, the kaleidoscope of colors in the hot springs and mineral waters were far more than just the tall tales of the mountain men and trappers. In addition to helping establish the park Moran was more successful than Bierstadt at acquiring the coveted governmental patronage. Why did Moran succeed where Bierstadt floundered? They had both been on expeditions, and Moran did his best work when he was on his own, but it was the type of expedition that he went on that gave him a more trusted authority. Moran had been an expedition member on a USGS expedition, that is he was a commissioned United States Geological Survey Artist. Most of his work at one time or another hung in the Department of the Interior of the United States and he sold 2 for $10,000. 
Grand Canyon of Arizona from Hermit Rim Road

Shoshone Falls on the Snake

This is one of my favorite Moran’s, and one of the few I have gotten to see in person. I have included this as it is displayed in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, OK. Go there if you ever get a chance, it is worth the diversion from whatever you are doing near there. This is how they were originally displayed with a place to sit and contemplate the immensity of it all as well as soak up the details. Another perspective on visiting the Gilcrease and the source of these images here.

Shoshone Falls on the Snake River*
*This is a cropped image. Open it in a new tab if you can to get a better detail of it. The original is huge and this photo does it little justice, but savor the view because this part of the Snake River has been dammed and these falls no longer do so.

One of the most striking images to come out of the Rocky Mountains was direct evidence that God was on the side of, and heartily approved of, Manifest Destiny. The Mount of the Holy Cross was thought to be only myth and legend and had never ben captured on canvas or film. As the snow melts natural crevasses in the side of the mountain that, it must be noted, was devilishly tricky to get to, was a blazing  (literally) snow white cross in the side of the mountain. Both Moran and Jackson caught it.

Mount of the Holy Cross 
Mount of the Holy Cross 

The images are striking, and definitely prove to those hearty enough to make the trek that God is still on your side. In fact he has been waiting for you out West. 
Mount of the Holy Cross Photograph by William Henry Jackson

 If there was any doubt that the cross existed in physical form and not just in the mind of a romantic landscape painter the expedition’s photographer William Henry Jackson’s handiwork put those to rest. In stark black and white he captured God’s giant thumbs up to westward expansion. It was this type of pairing–the photograph and the artwork–that sold the area to those holding the pursestrings in Washington.

As I mentioned before Moran did his most striking work when he was on his own independent trips out west. His connections with the railroad and friendships with the promoters for the Santa Fe Rail Road led to a degree of freedom of travel that any artist would have killed for. His promoter friend ensured Moran had a free pass anywhere the Santa Fe line ran, paid the Moran family’s Harvey House tabs Harvey Houses were Santa Fe hotels along the line), and took care of most of the bookkeeping and other logistics that allowed Moran unparalleled freedom and safety in the west. All this for agreeing to allow the Santa Fe Railroad to hold copyright on one of his works (and of his choosing) to use in their advertising campaign. In reality is was a win-win situation if ever there was one in the annals of art patronage.

Moran never lost his touch, and even in later years used light to greatly impact both the painting and the viewer.

Acoma (1903)

In Acoma we see Moran treating the Indians as Bierstadt had done, just as any other wildlife in the nature scene. More than that we see them riding into an uncertain future and disappearing into the dust cloud and then into landscape itself. His 1913 Venice is as close as he ever went to giving up form to pure light as Turner had. It is refreshing to see someone still working in the style of his original influence even late into his career and life. 
Venice (1913)

In a fun, if ironic twist Moran and the Hudson River School have been recently honored with their own USPS stamps. Moran, more or less, has retained a connection with his governmental patronage while it is funny to see artwork that is originally six by ten feet reduced to the literal size of a postage stamp.

 It might also be worth mentioning that, even in death, Bierstadt has missed out on another production for the American government. With that in mind, and in celebration of a long life full of creative vigor, travel, exploration, never ending romantically tinged realism, this image of Moran enjoying a cigar in 1912 seems the most fitting way to end this 2-pack of the Grand Landscape.

The Grand Landscape Pt. 1: Albert Bierstadt

With the millions of bytes of internet storage dedicated to the work of Albert Bierstadt, there is little I can say here about him that wouldn’t be said better elsewhere, what I will do is collect a few of his works here in order that I can easily scroll through them when I need a quick reminder of the quintessence of the Dusseldorf School.

Albert Bierstadt January 7, 1830-February 18, 1902

Albert Bierstadt was born in Germany in 1830, but his family moved to Massachusetts soon after. He later made a return trip to study art the in Dusseldorf under Emanuel Leutze (Washington Crossing the Delaware fame) before coming back and becoming one of the more theatrical members of the informal Hudson River School of painters. His paintings are lavish, glowing, and imposing. Giant works filled with ominous light and shadows, if they were not landscapes they could safely be called larger than life.

A Rustic Mill

 Bierstadt’s Rustic Mill painting is what I mean when I say quintessence of Dusseldorf style. It has a dark (albeit warm) autumnal palette, super tight composition that steers your eye to the center of the business, and glaze; actually glaze upon glaze used to give more play to the light and the dark. This picturesque view of a mill is far from the “typical” Bierstadt finery as seen in the literally enormous landscapes below.

Lake Tahoe

Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains 

Looking Down the Yosemite Valley

The Rocky Mountains: Lander’s Peak
A brief break in the action here to mention that this catches a trading scene that was hinted at but never fully captured by Alfred Jacob Miller (remember we talked about him and Drummond’s hunting expedition a couple posts ago). This 6′ x 10′ (186.7cm x 306.7cm) painting sold in 1865 for $25,000. When you get over the $25K price tag in Civil War dollars, look again at the size of this thing: Six feet tall by 10 feet wide. What seems like minutiae is in fact fairly detailed and integral part of Bierstadt’s theatrical label. More subtle are the details in perhaps his most famous(?) painting, and I will end with it 
Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie.

Here in all its light and dark ominous and promising romantic glory is a enigmatic mountain peak festooned with threatening clouds. Bierstadt was accompanying an expedition in 1863 when they named this peak after Fitz Ludlow’s (the expedition leader) soon to be ex-wife. Rosalie divorced Fitz after the expedition ended and married Bierstadt (why isn’t this a movie yet?).

Rosalie Osborne Ludlow Bierstadt
The storm over Mt. Rosalie piece is even larger than the Lander’s Peak canvas measuring in at nearly 8′ x 10′ (actually it is 83″ x 142.5″ (210.8cm x 361.3cm)) and contains a mind boggling level of detail. Here is where digital scans have actually aided the eye of the artists. If you open the image up as orignal size you can scroll through and see the highly detailed wild grape(?) vines, indian camp, and a riderless horse running from a horseless rider. The beauty (literally and figuratively in this case) of these immense creations lie in not only how they were made, but how they were exhibited. These would have been installed in an exhibit hall (sometimes only one would make up an entire gallery) with benches installed so that viewers could sit and ponder the moral meaning of the work. The details would have been enjoyed with nothing less than opera glasses. Small scenes would be encapsulated within the field of view of such devices, just as if you were sitting on a nearby peak watching the scene live. 
Most people, however, encountered his works as chromolithographic (and other styles) of illustration in magazines. He was always aiming for government patronage as well as painting for a market. He lived long enough to see his high style go out of favor and criticized for the very romance that it was lauded for when he started. Always conscious of money and living well Bierstadt applied for patents and stayed aware of trends even when not participating in them. He and his brother ran a photography company and many of his paintings are influenced by the stereoscopic images they created. Many of his images have definite foregrounds, midgrounds, and backgrounds that worked in more or less this manner: Photo–>Painting–>Woodcut trying to capture all one scene. 
His home/studio burned in 1882 and he left for Europe looking for investors in his idea of a portable darkroom on a collapsable railroad car. His wife died the following year and left him in a sad state of affairs until he remarried and traveled Eastern Europe through Turkey and thereabouts researching for a grand painting that would be marketed for the upcoming celebration of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 trip (1892) and the American Exposition of 1893. 
The Landing of Columbus
The Columbus piece wasn’t that well received and didn’t aid Bierstadt’s bad final years. In the 1890s he was nearly bankrupt and was forced to sell 150 of his paintings to remain solvent. A casualty of changing American tastes (towards French impressionism) Bierstadt died in 1902, but has left up with some of the grandest–in size and execution–images of the American West which fully supported the vision of Manifest Destiny and the great wealth of the golden lands that he painted. 

Thomas Cole, the Past, the Present, and the Course of Empire

More can be written about the American painter Thomas Cole than I could possibly wrap up in a single post, especially with my extremely limited knowledge of him and his work, but I do know some things worth sharing and hope they may lead you elsewhere for your own private elucidation.

Thomas Cole is considered the father of the Hudson River School of American painting. Cole is known for realistic (I would say hyperrealistic) representations of the American landscape and wilderness. Students of the Hudson River School are marked heavily by his hand and not a small dash of romanticism. This leads to a series of paintings from various artists that are instantly recognizable by their composition and execution as part of the school. Many people notice something familiar about Cole’s (and Hudson River School painters’) work without being totally aware of their connection or provenance.

Thomas Cole February 1, 1801-February 11, 1848 

 One of Cole’s most famous works is a series of five paintings that follow the rise and fall of a civilization. Called The Course of Empire, the series maintains a single cliff as a point of reference as time marches through the highs and lows of life. This has always been one of my favorite series for not only the depiction of a story line but also the process of geological time. The cliff, silent and steadfast watches empires rise and fall. Of course if the series was repainted today the cliff would be blasted away and a prairie would have to reclaim the parking lot that was left.

The Savage State 

 The first in the series shows wilderness at its finest. The Savage State is in a state of savagery. A place ready for the conquering. The tepee and smoke on the right offset the mountain man on the left.

The Arcadian or Pastoral State 

 What a difference a little working on the land makes. Settlers have cleared the land for pasture for their sheep, they are working the land for their own purposes wrestling it from the wilds off nature. Some dancing and boat-building round out the people in the scene. The striking inclusion of a monolithic temple harkens to the pre-super-civilization of the peaceful Grecians. To me it has always looked more like Stonehenge, but it is hard to ignore the Greco-Roman influence in the white marble superstructures of the remaining paintings in the series.

The Consummation of Empire 

 Well, it just doesn’t get any better than this, right? The apex of civility. The statuary, the architecture, the fountains, the artwork, the people, it is all here. Throngs of people look on as ships fill the harbor. The lone cliff faces a man-made mountain of carved marble across the river. What is the worst that could happen.


 A long way from the Indian camps on the banks of the river, the city has been sacked, raped and pillaged. Fantastic arched bridges have been destroyed, fire and death reign. One damsel flinging herself over the parapet to protect her honor. The headless warrior is enormous, and striking, even headless. Leading forward, its shield no use in protecting his city. The last time we looked at this in class it finally occurred to me who this *really* is. Thomas Cole, like most men in his position, and some other painters we have discussed here, were staunch anti-democrats–especially Jacksonian democracy. With Old Hickory being one of our military presidents, it is pretty obvious who Cole wanted to portray not only as a soldier, but a headless one ever charging forward. (That may not be the case, but Cole is pretty straightforward with his natural order of things when a fully democratic state is achieved in lieu of an educated elite controlling the republic (Whigs).


 The last rays of the day illuminate what is left of the city on the hill.  Ruins reclaimed by nature, on its way back to the savage state. Birds now nest on the towering ornately carved pillar, and the man-made marble mountain has lost its competition with nature’s cliff. No boats sail the harbor, there is nothing to trade, and no one to trade with. The end has arrived, nature slowly takes over. These, completed in 1836 after three years of working only added to the mystique of similar images that John Lloyd Stephens painted of the lost Mayan world in his Incidents of Travel series that ranged from 1837 to 1843.

Cole returned to this chrono-story painting in 1838 in his two part “The Past” and “The Present” paintings featuring a European castle in place of Greco-Roman white marble.

The Past

 A picturesque jousting tournament with a meadow filled with spectators, speeding chargers, tents, and various forms of ye olde  faire merriment. Opulence and wealth cannot be overstated. I am not 100% convinced this isn’t a pseudo-next in the series above with the lookout tower in the background placed on the old cliff overlooking the river.

The Present

 More ruins, this time medieval and not ancient, but ruins nonetheless. While the scene has digressed, savagery has not fully returned. The shepherd is back, perhaps maintaining a herd on the same glade that the original Arcadian sheep grazed.

Regardless of whether they are a continuation of the Empire series or not, this tiny cross section of Thomas Cole’s work gives you some idea of the high romanticism that shaped the Hudson River School of painting. More than just representations of the real or political commentary, Cole weaves hyperrealism with political philosophy to literary paint a portrait of time’s endless march forward (and perhaps with at least some degree of cyclic change).