The Serpent in the New Eden:
Technology and the Hudson River School

By Steve W. Lemke
delivered at the 1997 Rocky Mountain Regional meeting
of the American Academy of Aesthetics
at St. John College

      During the first half of the nineteenth century, American landscape painting enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity from virtual obscurity to national fad. It is estimated that in 1825 only about 10 percent of the paintings in American galleries were landscape paintings, while in 1850 that representation had grown to nearly 90 percent. (1)  The Hudson River school, with such artists as Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Asher Durand, Albert Bierstadt, Jasper Cropsey, George Inness, and Worthington Whittredge, enjoyed immense popularity from the 1830's through the 1860's. After the Civil War, however, such dramatic landscape painting slowly slid back into disfavor, (2) to be succeeded by the luminist school of Fitz Hugh Lane, John Kensett, and Martin Johnson Heade, the American impressionists such as Childe Hassam, John Twachtman, Mary Cassatt, James Whistler, and William Merritt Chase, and the advent of truly modern art in the Ashcan school with its Armory Show of 1913.

        The Hudson River school was, I believe, the first American school of art to raise significant questions about the legitimacy and value of technology. Several of the Hudson River School artists express in their works a growing concern about the dangers of technology, particularly in the later works of its founder Thomas Cole, and in some of the works of George Inness. While this shift is obviously not uniform or universal, and nor is it strictly chronological, some Hudson River School works appear to glorify technological progress, but some other works suggest a growing worry that the advantages of technology were not worth the price which must be paid. To appreciate these concerns of the Hudson River school artists, however, one must first understand their romantic vision of nature.

The Romantic Vision of Nature

        The artists of the Hudson River school were strongly influenced by the romantic heroic naturalism of John Ruskin and Alexander von Humbolt, and the associationism of Archibald Alison. Their aesthetic was also shaped by the definitions of the sublime, the beautiful, and the picturesque advocated by Edmund Burke and William Gilpin. The Hudson River school approached art with a rather Platonic aesthetic in which the beautiful is not that which is actual, but that which is ideal. Plato advocated the view that art should imitate the ideal, hence the artist has a moral role to communicate truth and appropriate moral values. (3) The Hudson River school's commitment to the Platonic aesthetic is evidenced in its idealization of nature, in its application of classic Claudian form, and in its allegorical representation of romantic ideals, Manifest Destiny, and Christian symbols.

        It is largely the Hudson River school approach to the sublime, the beautiful, and the picturesque mark its uniqueness. The Hudson River school artists, particularly in the early period, utilized a Burkean concept of the sublime (4) which emphasized the apocalyptic and catastrophic in nature--volcanoes, waterfalls, earthquakes, and storms. Fear and awe were appropriate responses to these catastrophic or dramatic events. This rather Gothic perspective on the sublime was exemplified in the Hudson River school's use of threatening nimbus and cumulus clouds in an approaching storm or a brilliant sunset.