the age of wonderment
Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School / organized by the New York Historical Society / at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, December 7, 2014-June 7, 2015
I attended the new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School,” with some anticipation. Having spent long hours before wonderful paintings such as Frederic Edwin Church’s Niagara Falls, The River of Light, and Aurora Borealis and Albert Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and other museums of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., I had long ago been enchanted by the Hudson River painters. And, accordingly, in a year of my cultural memoirs devoted to “Conversations with Nature,” I looked forward to being wowed these American artists’ wonderment of the natural world they observed around them. If there was ever a time in which nature appeared not to be in danger, and, in fact, dominated the Romantic world-view, it was in the mid-nineteenth century, when nearly everyone seemed to be rediscovering and enjoying the transcendent beauty the world in which they lived.
Niagara Falls was a natural subject for many of these artists, and Church’s vision of the power of the natural wonder is among the most important of the Hudson School paintings. Fascinating, however, was one of the few paintings by a woman artist, Louisa Davis Minot, of the same subject, an early painting from 1818, revealing a worthy artist I had previously not known. Evidently the two paintings of the Falls she did are her only known works of art. Not only is the one on display a powerful work of art, gives evidence of one of the earliest examples of the art that would soon coalesce into a group.
Another true surprise of this show is the amazing Mammoth Cave, Kentucky (1843) painting of French-born Régis François Gignoux, who besides being an example painter, was the teacher at the famed Tenth Street Studio in New York of noted American students such as George Inness, John La Farge, and Charles Dorman Robinson. Like the Niagara Falls paintings, this vast depiction of the innards of the earth quite literally swallows up its human visitors. Although nature, in many of the works, is beautiful, it is also awesome, overpowering, and, in these respects slightly terrifying. Human beings and their creations are often represented as fragile things which simply cannot compare with the vastness and majesty of nature itself.
Certainly that idea is behind the great five-part series of paintings by the nominal founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole. His memorable The Course of the Empire traces history—and by extension the history of the newly-founded democracy in which he worked—as it moved from the “Savage State,” a natural world without human intrusion, through the Arcadian or Pastoral state, with the earliest signs of human ritual worship, through the Consummation, Destruction and Desolation of the Empire, a cyclical historical pattern, suggests Cole, in which nature always wins out, mute witness to the meager attempts of humans to tame it. Based, in part, on Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage summarized by the poet as—
There is the moral of all human tales;
'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory – when that fails,