Charles Herbert Moore (1840-1930) Morning over New York, 11-7/8 by 30 inches, Vassar College Art Museum

View of New York from Hamilton Park, Weehawken, NJ

David Johnson (1827-1908), View of the Palisades and Hudson River, 1871, 11 by 15 inches, oil/canvas, Private Collection, Bronxville, NY

View of the Palisades from the Alpine Overlook

Samuel Colman (1832-1920), Storm King on the Hudson, 1866, 32 by 60 inches, Collection of the Smithsonian

View of Storm King and Crows nest from Breakneck ridge train stop, Route 9D, Beacon

Johann Herman Carmiencke (1810-1866), View from Hyde Park, NY, 1856, 32 by 48 inches, Denis Cheryschov, Rochester, MN

View from the Vanderbilt Mansion of the Hudson River

Francis Augustus Silva (1835-1886), Tappan Zee on the Hudson, 24 by 42 inches, oil/canvas, Brooklyn Museum

View from the Mills Mansion Boathouse, Staatsburg, NY

Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), Clouds over Olana, August, 1872, 8-3/4 by 12-1/8 inches, oil/paper, Olana State Historic Site

View of Olana, May 2010

Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), The Hudson Valley in Winter from Olana, circa 1871-1872, oil/paper, 20-1/4 by 13 inches, Olana State Historic site

View from Olana, May 2010

Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Falls of the Kaaterskill, 1826, 43 by 36 inches, oil/canvas, Westervelt-Warner Museum, Tuscaloosa, AL

Kaaterskill Falls, June 2010

Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Kaaterskill Falls, 1826, 25 by 36 inches, oil/canvas

View from under Kaaterskill Falls, 2010

Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Lake with Dead Trees, 1825, 27 by 34 inches, oil/canvas, Oberlin College Art Museum

View from South Lake, Catskills, 2009

Sanford Robinson Gifford carved initials in stone not far from South Lake

            Daybreak across the land, sunlight reveals a landscape wild and savage, unlike anything this world had seen before, vibrant with life, untamed, with vast virgin forests, strange creatures in great numbers, flocks of birds that cover the sky from horizon to horizon. This was what the artists of the Hudson River School saw as they emerged in the early 19th century. This new world vision was punctuated a pair of natural events whose size and scale were so enormous they dwarf anything seen since that time. The first was the volcanic eruption of Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, one without equal in recorded history; it shot so much ash into the atmosphere that 1816 was called the “Year without a Summer” or “Eighteen Hundred and Froze-to-Death.” America saw snow and crop failures, Europe saw food riots and famine. Upheaval and unemployment drove a young Englishman named Thomas Cole and his family to move across the Atlantic in hope of a more prosperous life. Also affected by the “Year without a Summer” was the Erie Canal project, stalled in 1817 by a malaria epidemic in the swamps of Syracuse, but construction soon surged west with laborers from the failed farms of New England. 

            The Canal was complete by 1825, just in time for Thomas Cole to appear with canvases of the wild and romantic heights of the Hudson River Valley far above the flow of settlers bound for the canal, and the American west. Three paintings by Cole that fall were exhibited in a picture shop window on lower Broadway of New York City, where they made news in the NY Post on November 22, 1825. That long lost review of American art described how artist John Trumbull instead of collecting on his own sales from Mr. Colman instead bought a work by Thomas Cole, exclaiming, “This youth has done at once, and without instruction, what I can not do after 50 years of practice.” These rugged images without affectation opened the door to America looking at itself in the mirror, and the country liked what it saw.

            In 1859 another eruption occurred, this one from the sun itself in the first documented solar flare. Astronomer Richard Carrington discovered it through his telescope, wrote about it, but a day and a half after the solar flare subsided; the entire planet was buffeted by a wave of charged particles that caused the greatest display of the aurora borealis ever seen in North America and northern Europe. This symphony of light was sufficiently bright enough to read at midnight, and it inspired Frederic Church, to paint “Twilight in the Wilderness,” a canvas that excited critical esteem. The painting soon disappeared, forgotten like Carrington and the solar flare. Time passed, trends in art came and went. Impressionism superseded the Barbizon, then Cubism, then Abstract Expressionism. Given this context, the rediscovery in 1963 of Church's lost Twilight aroused only a collective yawn in the art world.  Oblivious and ignorant of the cosmic event that inspired its creation, an art dealer likened it to calendar art.  Eventually it found a home in the Cleveland Museum, and Twilight very soon symbolized an American Paradise lost, recognition that galvanized the start of the modern environmental movement.

             This is the story of how the Hudson River School,  rose, won wide acclaim, and then disappeared, only to be forcefully resurrected a century later in the 1960s when Hudson Valley residents sought to reset the idea of nature ascendant, free from a purgatory of power plants spewing pollution and industrial development. These paintings accompanied by photographs taken by the author of the actual artist sites, reveal what remains of America’s original artistic Eden. That these vistas still exist is a tribute to the court room success of Scenic Hudson and the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association, now Riverkeeper, in defending these landmarks. Now it is possible to go see the places up the Hudson and view the restored vistas that inspired these artists of long ago.

            Near NY City, one can drive to the Bluffs of Weehawken, where Burr shot Hamilton and gaze upon the heavily altered harbor of New York. Farther up north past the GW Bridge on the Jersey side of the Hudson River are the Palisades, an interstate park purchased by the Rockefellers to preserve the cliffs from being turned into a rock quarry too convenient to New York City. Numerous overlooks exist on the side of the parkway to allow extraordinary vistas to be seen. North of West Point is Storm King Mountain, a natural landmark painted by Samuel Colman in 1868, later the epicenter of an eighteen year legal battle between Consolidated Edison and an alliance of local environmental preservationist minded groups. As one can tell by looking at Storm King, best seen from Route 9-D on the east bank, Con-Ed lost and an important legal precedent was established by the Feds in 1965 when they wrote that the “remanded proceedings must include as a basic concern the preservation of natural beauty and national historic sites, keeping in mind that in our affluent society, the cost of a project is only one of several factors to be considered.”

            Above Hyde Park lie two more stunning places of interest before reaching the expected ultimate prize of the Catskills. The first is the stately Vanderbilt mansion, situated on a site painted in 1856 by Johann Carmiencke, it has a great view looking north up the river towards that Catskills, and remains surprisingly faithful to the 19th century view. This is best seen from the parking lot exit to the north of the main house. Eight miles up the road is the Mills Mansion, also a Stanford White design which has a view from its boathouse oddly enough a near duplicate scene to the one painted by Francis Silva in the Brooklyn Museum, that is erroneously titled, Tappan Zee on the Hudson.” Both the painting and the boathouse have the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse on the right with the Catskills in the distance.

            South of Hudson, NY, is the Frederic Church homestead Olana, atop a hill on the east side of the river with stunning views to the north, west and south. The Moorish styled Victorian house had great vistas and remained in the artist’s family until 1963 when the artist’s daughter in-law died and a group led by Daniel Huntington was given a year or two to buy the land as well as the contents of the home. Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the state stepped in with the final dollars needed to close the deal, the one caveat by Nelson was that the property would belong to the state of New York, and Olana has been the crown jewel of the state park system ever since, though not without its own legal battles as well. In the 1970’s power companies applied to build a nuclear plant directly south of Olana, but the application was withdrawn in 1979, just after Three Mile Island.

            Across the Hudson from Olana is the Catskill Park. For world class vistas drive west on Route 23A through Palenville into Kaaterskill Clove, almost all the way to Tannersville there is a waterfall on the right, and a parking lot up the hill on the left. Park there and walk back to the lower falls, as that is the approach to Kaaterskill Falls, a half mile in and a quarter mile up. The double falls is the highest in New York State, higher than Niagara, and it was here in 1825 where Cole first produced sketches of the vista opening the way for landscape painting to become the dominant aesthetic of the United States. Not far from the falls are North and South lakes, situated by the Catskill escarpment, former home of the Catskill Mountain House, the old hotel is gone, burned by the state in 1963, and the area has reverted back to nature. Buildings gone, the place still has a sweeping views of the Hudson from Albany to Poughkeepsie and south, if you look close in some places you can almost see where the artists signed the landscape itself by leaving their initials in the rock.