- Popolopen Creek, Frank Anderson, 1863.
“Before the Mississippi was even used, the Hudson River was the gateway to North America,” explains Alexander Boyle, curator of “Reflections Renewed: Hudson River Images Revisited” at Boscobel in Garrison. The show consists of 20 reproductions of Hudson River School paintings, each paired with a contemporary photograph of the same spot by Boyle. The pictures are arranged in geographical order, traveling upstate from New York City. Boyle has been working on this project for eight years.
He has found 150 locations within New York State and another 160 outside the state, including Ecuador and Italy. Boyle’s focus is on the Northeast, though just for fun he recently identified the setting of Frederic Church’s Gateway to the Andes. Eventually, Boyle hopes to produce a book of his photos, possibly paired with a GPS-based website, so that others may find the locations. So far, he has documented about 60 of the sites. I spoke to Boyle recently as he drove back from a fruitless search for the setting of Schroon Mountain after a Storm by Thomas Cole.
“The term ‘Hudson River School’ was coined by a nasty critic in the New York Herald Tribune in 1883,” Boyle notes. “It’s a dismissive term. The Hudson River School called itself the ‘Native School’ or the ‘American School.’” It was the first American movement in painting, though initiated by Cole, an Englishman. This style emphasized the play of light on water, and wide, generous skies, to evoke the grandeur of God.
The Hudson River School was economically dependent on the Erie Canal, which transformed the Hudson into a major thoroughfare, and brought the first economic boom to New York. Thomas Cole’s earliest patrons were two grain merchants who made their fortune on the Hudson. In return, Cole’s paintings were proto-advertisements for the beauties of our river valley. (Later in the movement, railroads would pay for Thomas Moran and Robert Bierstadt to paint the West.) Did Hudson River School artists edit out all signs of human presence? “They all used the iron horse, but they had a love-hate relationship with it,” Boyle recounted. One painting of Breakneck Ridge by Charles Herbert Moore transforms the railroad tracks into a carriage path.
This art movement ended around 1890. What did in the Hudson River School, Boyle believes, was the Civil War and the industrialization of New York. Suddenly, America looked less like “the new Eden.” This school of art was out of favor for nearly 100 years, until interest revived in the 1970s. Now these long-dead painters are hot properties. Alice Walton (of the Wal-Mart fortune) made headlines by paying $35 million for Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits in 2005.
There is an implicit athleticism to this art—the ability to climb mountains and walk through soggy meadows—which Boyle is reliving. In the 19th century, artists and tourists would search for the perfect vantage point to turn a pretty vista into an exalted one. They were connoisseurs of seeing.
Boyle, the son of environmentalist Robert H. Boyle, who was pivotal in saving Storm King from becoming the site of a power plant in 1962, co-wrote the book Acid Rain in 1983, and makes a subtle statement about the sanctity of local landscapes in “Reflections Renewed.” Who would have guessed that so many of the original sites of Hudson River School paintings were extant? “It didn’t happen by accident,” Boyle remarks. They are the gifts of generations of activists, who have preserved a living heritage. “And that’s half the reason I’m doing this show, to remind people that these places exist, and the next time some genius proposes an industrial power plant, we’ll make sure that doesn’t happen!”
“Reflections Renewed: Hudson River Images Revisited” will appear at Boscobel in Garrison through December 12. (845) 265-3638.
- Popolopen Creek Falls, Alexander Boyle, 2009.