Beautiful depictions of a young American landscape
By J. Chambless
'Autumn Woods' (1886) by Albert Bierstadt.
By John Chambless
You'll want to take at least an hour to wander through the beautiful exhibit that opened on March 19 at the Brandywine River Museum of Art. “The Poetry of Nature: A Golden Age of American Landscape Painting” is a rare chance to enjoy more than 40 richly detailed landscapes of early America by Hudson River School painters drawn from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.
Painted between 1818 and 1886, the works idealize the wild beauty of America. Peer closely along the streams and woodlands and you'll see only the merest trace of human habitation. It's a reminder of how wide-open the nation was in the 1800s, and how awe-inspiring many of these same areas remain today.
The Hudson River School formed under the influence of painter Thomas Cole. The artists shared a reverence for the landscape that went beyond just capturing it – several of these works are composites of land and sky that may not have actually existed, but each painting is brimming with the optimism of a young nation expanding its boundaries.
“Woodland Brook” (1859), by Cole's close associate Asher Durand, has a grand scale and immersive quality, but is actually constructed of various elements to heighten the depth and drama of the scene. The extremely detailed depictions of bark, leaves and dappled sunlight in “June Woods (Germantown)” by W.T. Richards adhere strictly to reality and serve to put you right on the shady path. Speaking of drawing you in, the monumental “Autumn Woods” by Albert Bierstadt has such a razor-sharp glow in its depiction of fall foliage and a leaf-strewn stream that you can almost feel the autumn breeze.
Times of day were meticulously rendered as well, shown in the glowing sky in “Seashore (Sunset on the Coast)” by John Kensett, and the magnificent “Morning in the Blue Ridge Mtns., Virginia” by William Sonntag.
The clouds spread out for miles in “Sunset in the Berkshire Hills” by Frederic Edwin Church. Louisa Davis Minot's “Niagara Falls” has a rich texture of churning water and billowing mist that seems almost solid. Typical of Hudson River School paintings, there are a couple of tiny human figures in the foreground for scale, and they stand, awestruck.
In the small painting “Catskill Mountains, Haying” by Thomas Hotchkiss, workers toil in a tiny field, still in harmony with nature but almost lost amidst all the natural splendor. People do actually play a large role in the foreground composition of “Hudson River Valley From Fort Putnam, West Point” by George Henry Boughton. They are shown, in their 1800s finery, as they take in the view from a footpath over the ruins of the fort from the Revolutionary War.
Asher Durand's “Studies From Nature” are modestly-sized works that depict real places that he would later draw upon when constructing large-scale paintings. They are just as dazzlingly detailed and atmospheric as his major works.
In all these paintings, you can sense the pride and awe of the artists as they worked. Beyond their uncanny skill at depicting sky and woods and water, these artists brought views of a magical new nation to an international audience who hungered to see the wild, new vistas. Whether idealized or faithful depictions of the beauty of the land, these scenes can still make visitors gasp in appreciation.
Unfailingly beautiful, this exhibition is a greatest-hits gathering of paintings that everyone can love. It continues through June 12. For more information, visit www.brandywinemuseum.org.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.