Perched on a cliff overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades, the Hudson River Museum is the perfect place to explore amazing artistic views of the Hudson Valley landscape, which is the focus of its current exhibition called “Walks with Artists: The Hudson Valley and Beyond.”
The forty paintings, prints, photographs, and mixed media currently on display are cleverly arranged according to the basic elements that artists actually use as they walk outside to compose landscape paintings– trees, water, sky, terrain, and structures. As Chief Curator Laura Vookles, who organized the show, notes:
“I looked at 19th century and contemporary instructional books on landscape painting…And it was interesting that I saw separate chapters devoted to painting trees, painting water, painting sky, and so forth. So it became a perfect device to fit the theme and to give a reason not to be chronological.”
It took about 3 years and a large team working both indoors and outside the museum to develop and produce the exhibit, says Vookles. They started restoring paintings in the collection more than two years ago, working with four outside conservators. (Vookles and Assistant Curator Theodore Barrow wrote the text.)
Traveling Up the Hudson for Inspiration
The oldest picture in the show is from about 1821, called A View of Baker’s Falls, a well-known site site up near Lake George and Saratoga. There the falls are thought to be the highest of any on the river and they were renamed “Hudson Falls” in 1910.
The painting was created by Irish-born and trained William Guy Wall (1792-c.1864) as part of his portfolio series documenting views along about 212 miles of the river.
Experts at the New York Historical Society say that Wall’s watercolors, which subsequently were engraved by master printmaker John Hill and then widely published, are considered “the first series of prints to make Americans aware of the beauty and sublimity of their own scenery…”
The Hudson River School
Wall’s landscapes are considered a forerunner to the more famous landscapes of the Hudson River School of Artists, including Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, whose artworks are also in the show. They are known for their romantic landscapes, often featuring naturalistic details, craggy trees, distant, dramatic mountains, and inspired skies.
The exhibition features a few lovingly restored works from this school of artists, depicting nature as a sort of mystical wilderness in which people often are included as tiny figures, seemingly overwhelmed by nature’s majesty.
Currier & Ives’ Best-Kept Secret
The museum recently purchased two hand-colored lithographs dating from the 1850’s and 60’s, which depict landscapes near West Point and Garrison, New York. Originally published by the well-known New York firm, Currier & Ives, they are fascinating because the woman artist, who is not credited by the firm, is Frances (Fanny) Palmer– one of the most prolific artists of the late 19th century. Palmer’s pictures were so popular that historians say they probably decorated the homes of more Americans than any other single artist’s work.
Palmer, who was born in England (1812-1876), started working as a staff artist at the Currier company in 1849. The only woman artist there, she created more than 200 lithographs for the firm until she retired in 1868. Her images were later reproduced hundreds of times on calendars and greeting cards throughout the 20th century, uncredited except for the name of Currier & Ives. She is considered by some to be the foremost woman lithographer of her time.
Modern Mixed Media
New York-based visual artist Alison Moritsugu (b. 1962 in Honolulu, Hawai’i) is represented in the show by a single real log that is sliced, with bark intact, so that its wooden cross-section can become a painted surface. It is part of her “log series” painted with idyllic images reminiscent of the Hudson River School paintings.
But the painted image is taken out of context and the log– dead wood– comes from taking down a living tree, so it seem like the artwork reflects Moritsugu’s critique of current environmental destruction.
Moritsugu began to paint on logs in 1993 while at an artist residency in upstate New York. “I had been painting small, detailed landscapes on wood panels… On my morning walks through the wooded residency grounds, I saw neatly-stacked cords of firewood. The cut ends of these logs created a smooth, flat surface, and I became more interested in painting on the logs than on the wood panels.”
For Moritsugu, landscapes of the 18th and 19th century reflect the idea of a limitless wilderness, which was “a contrived narrative” that shaped the American experience of nature. “Today, photoshopped images of verdant forests and unspoiled beaches invite us to vacation and sightsee, providing a false sense of assurance that the wilderness will always exist,” she says. “By exploring idealized views of nature, my work acknowledges our more complex and precarious relationship with the environment.”
Painted Directly From Nature
Another contemporary artist in the show, Ellen Kozak, paints the rippling surface of water in liquid-looking oils. For her Hudson River Primer series, each summer morning she would walk to the edge of the water and start a new painting. She explains:
“Since 1994 my studio on the east bank of the Hudson River [has provided] a view of the river in all seasons. I work directly on its banks where my visual ideas are guided by direct observation. The evanescence of light on bodies of water entrances me with compelling associations between color and movement.”
In the show, one of her paintings actually is mounted on a panel that has undulating edges mimicking the water’s wavy surface.
Compared to the landscapes of earlier centuries, and those of his contemporaries, Jack Stuppins’ brightly-colored, bold, contemporary painting, Tatashu Farm, Catskills (2016), practically jumps off the wall.
When standing up close to the picture, the thick, almost psychedelic pigments are so heavily layered that the surface appears nearly sculptural.
Before he became a painter, Stuppins worked as a computer and digital technology entrepreneur in California. His painting technique reportedly begins by digitizing the landscape images, which truly brings his landscape art right up to the present at the same time that its subject matter is linked to the past.
With this wide-ranging exhibit, viewers can travel vicariously up and down the Hudson River Valley, experiencing awesome vistas, and discovering why the Hudson River has attracted artists for centuries.
“Walks With Artists: The Hudson Valley and Beyond” is on view through January 21, 2018.
The Hudson River Museum is located at 511 Warburton Avenue, Yonkers, New York.