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Landscape Photography: Inspiration From Early America

In the effort to make the transition from taking snapshots to producing “real photographs” (an ongoing effort) I took a survey course on art appreciation. Studying the landscape paintings of early American artists has been inspirational. It has also provided a unique perspective on how to observe, interpret and capture images of the outdoors. The art which inspires me is from the Hudson River School … not a surprise … many of the locations where they’ve painted I’ve visited since childhood. In the next several articles I’ll introduce the Hudson River School, favorite artists and examples of their art. Hopefully you’ll be inspired as well … not only to enjoy their art, but also to incorporate some of the elements of their work into you photography.

Forest Stream with Vista - A.B. Durand

The Hudson River School is actually a misleading name. True that it was applied to a group of painters centered around New York City … but their work wasn’t limited to a specific geography and there was no academy or studio where they all learned a particular style. The name was used initially in a pejorative sense towards the later years of the school’s activity to describe what patrons and collectors now considered to be old-fashioned methods and outlook. Active from the 1850s through the late 1890s, they were America’s first artist fraternity; most belonged to the National Academy and worked at the Studio Building on W 10th Street.

There were several generations of Hudson River School painters. Thomas Cole, an English immigrant, has by consensus been identified as the school’s founder. Cole taught Frederic Edwin Church for two years but otherwise played no role in developing or organizing the school. After Cole’s death (1848), Asher Brown Durand became the leader of the New York-based landscape painters. He was elected the president of the National Academy of Design and published a series of letters which set the standards for the naturalism which was the hallmark of their product.

Lighthouse at Camden, Maine - F.H. Lane

The second generation included Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Edwin Church, John Frederick Kensett and Sanford Robinson Gifford. These painters traveled with groups exploring the newly opened regions of the country in the post-Civil War era. Their large-scale paintings introduced Americans to the grandeur and rugged beauty of their new country. Another art style, Luminism, was developed during the same time (1850-1870) by several of the Hudson River School painters. The Luminist paintings are characterized by the effects of light in the landscape; the tranquil scenes include reflective water and a soft, hazy sky.

Autumn Afternoon - W.T. Richards

Church and Bierstadt have been identified by some as the greatest of the School’s painters, but I believe that’s mostly an income-based decision (Cole was paid $10,000 for one of his paintings, Beirstadt $25,000). For me, the Hudson River School greats are Durand, Lane, Kensett, Gifford and one or two others. More about that in the next article.

Be well and stay safe. Gordon.


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