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. The Hudson River school paintings evoked a sense of overwhelming awe, accented by the monumental scale of these works--as much as ten feet across. This concept of the sublime could be called "Christianized" in that it implied human insignificance in the face of an omnipotent, holy God.

        One must put William Gilpin's view of the picturesque alongside Burke's vision of the sublime to see the larger vision of the Hudson River aesthetic. For Gilpin, the picturesque entailed pictures of untamed wilderness not dissimilar from those required by Alison's association theory. (5) Gilpin drew a distinction between the "picturesquely sublime," (the Burkean concept of the sublime as exemplified in the painting of Salvator Rosa); and the "picturesquely beautiful," (exemplified in the idyllic landscapes of Claude Lorrain). Lorrain set the pattern for classicist landscapes with a consistent threefold pattern--a dark foreground framed by trees on the sides, water in the middle of the picture, and mountains in the distance. (6) Thomas Cole, the paradigmatic Hudson River school painter, was probably more faithful to the Claudian convention in his landscape works than some of the Hudson River artists, but many of his works also exemplify the Burkean sublime. Perhaps it would be most accurate to say that the Hudson River artists worked within the tension created by the conflicting ideas of the sublime, beautiful, and the picturesque of their day. Or, to put it differently, they worked within a triangular tension between neo-classical imagery which invited thinking, romantic imagery which invoked feeling, and the new empiricism which saw the physical world with strict realism. The early Hudson River school painters certainly leaned toward the romantic tri-pole, with its awe-inspiring and picturesque Burkean concept of the sublime.

        The romanticism of the Hudson River school painters did not, however, lead them into obscurantist, anti-intellectual, or anti-naturalist sentiments. In fact, they were probably more closely acquainted with the most recent developments in contemporary science than most artists are to the science of their day. They were very interested in the latest developments in botany, biology, and meteorology. Church, for example, not only had the contemporary books on such topicsin his library, but also journeyed from the Arctic to South America to see such phenomena firsthand. But the Hudson River school artists found an account of science which did not discourage them from their romanticist aesthetic.

        John Ruskin in his seminal work Modern Painters (7) advocated the view that nature must be seen as both material and spiritual. While art should be true to physical representation, it must also present an imaginative, poetic vision. In addition to the bare facts of nature, the artist must also reproduce the sentiment or feeling involved in the perception of nature. German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who taught both Charles Darwin and his opponent Louis Agassiz, advocated "heroic landscape painting" that linked the physical details of the outer natural world into the higher, inner sphere of art through an "inward process of mind." (8) Frederic Church so admired von Humboldt that he traced exactly the naturalist's South American journey (with Cyrus Field) on his own journey. Agassiz also had contacts with and affinity for the nature mysticism in the Transcendentalist philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, for whom Cole and others had appreciation.(9) So while the Hudson River artists painted the details of nature with great precision, the idealization of nature was necessary for genuine art. As Thomas Cole desired to be more than a mere "leaf painter," but wanted instead to represent the "true" in nature:

        By true in Art I mean imitation of true Nature and not the imitation of accidents  . . . . All nature is not true.
        The stunted pine, the withered fig tree, the flower whose petals are imperfect are not true. (10)

The "true" in nature was often a composition or glorification of an actual scene. The artist painted a typical or idealized scene, rather than portraying one place at one time. When asked where a particular site of a landscape was, George Inness answered "Nowhere in particular. Do you think I illustrate guide books? That's a picture." (11) Asher Durand
also believed that representational realism is not the artist's goal, for the task of the artist is "not to transcribe whole pages (of nature) indiscriminately, 'verbatim ad literature,' but such texts as most clearly and simply declare her great truths . . ." (12)

        That which the Hudson River artists (particularly Thomas Cole) believed was "true" often involved the associationism of Archibald Alison.(13) Alison's theory of association asserted that the grandeur of unspoiled nature could inspire the viewer to emotions that were morally uplifting, leading one in an upward chain of associations into a mystical experience with God. Cole and other American artists adapted Alison's theory to an American setting by seeing its untamed wilderness as a new garden of Eden.

        Christian religious themes and symbolism were frequently present in Hudson River school works, particularly by Cole and his student Church. Cole's Course of Empire series is a morality play about the inevitable fate of the pagan, in sharp contrast with the destiny of the Christian in his Cross and the World series. The Cross and the World and The Voyage of Life series expresses a pilgrimage theology of salvation consciously modeled after John Bunyan's. (14) In addition to religious symbols in paintings, Cole and Church painted specific biblical events as well. (15) Both Cole and Church often place crosses in their paintings, and Cole's paintings often have a vertical and horizontal line of light which places a luminous cross squarely in the center of the picture. (16)

        The Hudson River painters reflected the romanticism (17) of their day. In the Empire series and his pastoral depictions of Arcadia, Cole reflects this romantic tendency. But even more common was to portray scenes in the American wilderness as the new Eden for the noble savage. Cole even drew a scene from Cooper's American romantic novel The Last of the Mohicans. Other works by Hudson River artists were specifically drawn from neo-classicist and romantic authors. (18) The frequent use by the Hudson River school of heroic, picturesque landscapes with pioneers blazing a trail in the wilderness further underscore romantic imagery and the idea of the romantic hero.

        The nationalistic message of Manifest Destiny was often proclaimed in Hudson River school works. Imagery of America as the New Eden, pioneers as the New Adam, and key American leaders in a Moses/exodus motif drew close parallels to biblical motifs such as God's creation and the divine election of Israel. Leo Marx has distinguished two views of gardens in landscape painting--the primitive wilderness (in America) and the cultivated pastoral scene (in Europe). (19) Manifest Destiny cast the American wilderness as an Edenic American Genesis, a paradise regained. It is also seen in the Hudson River school's adaptation of earlier historical painting genre to landscape painting in glorifying early American pioneers. (20)

        This glorification of the westward march of settlers to tame the American wilderness made many Hudson River school artists appear to be advocates of technology. The vestiges of human habitation--sawmills alongside streams and cabins nestled in the wilderness --were smoothly integrated so as to suggest an amicable union. (21) Paradigmatic of such a comfortable harmony between humans and nature is Frederic Church's New England Scenery of 1851, and in the similar New England Landscape (Evening after a Storm) of 1849. In New England Scenery various signs of human habitation--a bridge, a sawmill, and a distant village--are nestled into a beautiful scene. It is designed as a typical, composite scene, as Humboldt and Thoreau had described, rather than any particular location. Perhaps because several members of his family were engaged in the sawmill trade, Church does not portray sawmills or the sawed-off tree stumps they produced in the somewhat negative light as did his teacher Thomas Cole. (22) There is no evidence in the scene that the human presence in this beautiful scene did anything to mar its natural beauty. The resourceful pioneers are cultivating the New Eden, but they are not destroying it. (23) The Conestoga wagon in the foreground suggests that this vision of Manifest Destiny is being carried further westward.

        In another work, Mt. Ktaadn (1853), Church inserts a road, bridge, and mill into a scene quite different than the more untouched scene described by Thoreau in the same era. Church was thus depicting not what was, but what could be. Likewise, Church's West Rock, New Haven (1849) added hay harvesters in the foreground which were not present in his sketches. The justification for such creative landscape painting was in the confidence which Hudson River artists such as Thomas Cole had in the Manifest Destiny that the American West was a New Eden: (24)

        In looking over the yet uncultivated scene, the mind's eye may see far into futurity. Where the wolf roams,
        the plough shall glisten; on the gray crag shall rise temple and tower--mighty deeds shall be done in the now
        pathless wilderness; and poets yet unborn shall sanctify the soil.

        The message of Manifest Destiny made the Hudson River school painters, especially Church and Bierstadt, the favorites of wealthy industrialists and railroad magnates. The money from the commissioned works for these patrons may have steered some of the Hudson River school artists more into this genre than they might have otherwise. Cyrus Field, a wealthy telegraph entrepreneur, became both a friend and a patron of Church, commissioning several works. For example, Field commissioned Church to paint View near Stockbridge, Massachusetts (1847). This painting portrayed a panoramic view of Field's hometown which conveniently surveyed the Fields estate and highlighted the steeple of the Congregationalist church where Field's father had served as pastor. (25) In this and other instances, the content of the picture appeared to be driven by the patron's financial incentives.

Concerns about Technology

        Despite their appreciation for contemporary science and their early glorification of the Western movement, some Hudson River school works began to show signs of concern about the dangers of unchecked technology. Emblematic of these rising concerns is the contrast between George Inness' ambiguous 1855 painting entitled The Lackawanna Valley, and Jasper Cropsey's Starrucca Viaduct of 1865. Both paintings present a panoramic scene with a train and other vestiges of civilization, viewed by a Doppelgänger figure in the foreground. (26) But in Cropsey's depiction the train and its steam mingles into the surrounding environment, blending into the pastoral setting. The train is dwarfed by the natural scenery, and is moving away from the observer. In contrast, Inness' work, commissioned by the owner of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, portrayed a topographical view of Scranton, Pennslyvania in the background. The train is larger, near the center of the composition, and coming toward the foreground. Inness even included an as yet to be completed roundhouse (exaggerated in size) at his corporate patron's request. There are, however, some troubling suggestions in the picture. The foreground view is marred by dozens of ugly stumps and the scene is clouded by the emissions of several smokestacks. The scene is not particularly pretty or awe-inspiring. The town in the background looks dirty and dusty. The stump-marred field which dominates the foreground and the bottom half of the painting is very unappealing. The painting leaves at best an ambiguous message about the value of technology. (27)

        Another such contrast can be seen between frontier cabin scenes in Thomas Cole's later works such as The Hunter's Return (1845) and Home in the Woods (1847) versus those of his student Frederic Church, Home by the Lake (Scene in the Catskill Mountains) of 1852, and Sunset Landscape (A Country Home) of 1854. Cole's paintings are not blatantly anti-technology; the scenes suggest a loving family of valiant pioneers carving their existence out of the abundance of nature. But the prominence of ugly tree stumps and nearby axes raises the concern that humanity might be falling from grace and destroying the New Eden. While he had been an advocate of western expansion, Cole began to express concerns about the "ravages of the axe," and became apologists for pure wilderness. (28) Church's paintings, by contrast, have only a few stumps, and their placement on the canvas is not nearly so prominent as in Cole's depictions.

The Uneasy Marriage of Technology and Wilderness

        The Hudson River school artists in many ways were pro-technology. They were friends of and beneficiaries of wealthy industrialist and railroad tycoon patrons. They glorified the western expansion, and indeed portrayed it as a divine mission. They portrayed the American settlers as noble pioneers in a New Eden.   But the romanticism at the core of the Hudson River school perspective prevented them from embracing technology completely. Romanticism looks back, not forward. It honors the noble savage, not the technocrat. The Hudson River artists were concerned about the preservation of the untamed beauty of the virgin wilderness. It was the ruggedness of the wilderness, not the pastoral scenes of European landscape painting, which they so loved. They began to see the sawmills, the roads, the trains, and the wholesale deforestation of the Midwest as a threat to the New Eden, and as symbols of destruction. The paradise of the New Eden was endangered, and could become paradise lost. Their aesthetic thus had little room for the invasion of idealized natural beauty by technological innovation. Their vision was not the creation of a new utopia through science and technology, but for a return to the purity of the original creation. Technology was not the agent of redemption, but the serpent in Eden.


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1  Lee Savage and Joan Holt, The Hudson River and Its Painters (Farmingham: The Hudson Company, 1987).

2  The works of Church and Bierstadt sold for the highest prices of any living American painter for their time--$10,000 for a Church painting and $25,000 for Bierstadt's Rocky Mountains. But Church's death in 1900 evoked one obituary that noted that "the fact that he was still alive has been almost forgotten by present-day artists." William James Williams, A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art (New York: Rutledge, 1981), 121. Another critic noted, "Gradually, we are becoming aware how imperfect the old representative symbolical art is--how insufficiently it exercises the senses." "Bearings of Modern Science on Art," in Littel's Living Age, 1871, quoted in Franklin Kelly, Frederic Edwin Church and the National Landscape (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), 123.

3  Plato, The Republic (New York: Penguin, 1958), 138-144, 370-386.

4  Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (London: 1757) drew a distinction between the sublime, which was fearful and awe-inspiring, and the beautiful, which was attractive and picturesque. Barbara Novak likewise distinguished between "operatic," "Gothic," or "Christianized" concept of the sublime expressed by the Hudson River School from the "serene," "quietistic," or "mystic" concept of the sublime utilized by the luminists. See Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 28-37.

5  William Gilpin, Three Essays: On Picturesque Travel; and On Sketching Landscape, To Which Is Added a Poem (London, n.p., n.d.). See Christopher Hussey, The Picturesque, Studies in a Point of View (Handon: n.p., 1967); Novak, Nature and Culture 35, 160, 228; Anthony F. Janson, Worthington Whittredge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 1-2; and Earl A. Powell, Thomas Cole (New York: Abrams, 1990), 12, 15-16, 20-26.

6  Novak, Nature and Culture, 228.

7  John Ruskin, Modern Painters, 5 vols. New York: John Wiley and Son, 1868. See also Francis G. Townsend, Ruskin and the Landscape Feeling (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1951); Roger B. Stein, John Ruskin and Aesthetic Thought in America, 1840-1900 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967); Novak, Nature and Culture, 83-84, 298-299; and Kelly, Church, 22, 28. While John Ruskin had praised Hudson River school works such as Church's Niagra Falls, he decried an impressionistic Whistler exhibition by saying he "never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler sued Ruskin for these remarks and won a landmark trial which made art critics much more cautious (and which virtually bankrupted Whistler--he won a token settlement of one farthing). Whistler's remark became famous that his price was not for the hours invested in the painting, but for "the knowledge of a lifetime." Williams, American Paintings, 130.

8  Alexander von Humbolt, Cosmos, trans. E. C. Otte, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Bros., 1850), 2:74, 86. See also Novak, Nature and Culture, 66-74; and Kelly, Church, 53-57, 74-78.

9  Novak, Nature and Culture, 3-7, 39-41, 60-67, 104-116, 130-133, 181, 266-272. Emerson believed that Christianity was best seen not in a catechism but "from the pastures, from a boat in the pond, from amidst the songs of wood-birds." He saw "the noblest ministry of nature . . . to stand as the apparition of God." True revelation, he believed, is "always attended by the emotion of the sublime." Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Brooks Atkinson (New York: Random House, 1950), 34, 269, 285-286.

10  Thomas Cole, quoted in Louis L. Noble's The Course of Empire, Voyage of Life and Other Pictures of Thomas Cole, N.A. with Selections from His Letters and Miscellaneous Writings: Illustrative of His Life, Character, and Genius (New York: Cornish, Lamport and Co., 1853), 263, 335. See Novak, Nature and Culture, 53; and Doreen Bolger and Kathleen Bennewitz, "Thomas Cole's Garden of Eden," Antiques (July 1990), reprint ed., 2-3.

11 Williams, American Paintings, 125.

12 Asher Durand, quoted in Novak, Nature and Culture, 9.

13 Archibald Alison, Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (London, 1790). See also W. P. Hudson, "Archibald Alison and William Cullen Bryant," American Literature 12:1 (March 1940), 59-68; Powell, Cole, 35-39, 66-67; and Janson, Whittredge, 2-3, 8.

14 Powell, Cole, 84-92.

15  Cole's turning to more explicitly religious themes is usually attributed to the influence of his pastor and biographer, Louis Noble. Cole painted biblical scenes such as The Garden of Eden, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge, The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds, Saint John in the Wilderness, and Angels Ministering to Christ in the Wilderness; while Church painted The Plague of Darkness and Moses Viewing the Promised Land. See Powell, Cole, 108-109; Kelly, Church, 8, 18-19.

16  Crosses appear in Cole's Saint John in the Wilderness andThe Cross at Sunset; in Church's The Cross in the Wilderness, To the Memory of Cole, and Heart of the Andes, and a luminous cross in Church's The Andes of Ecuador.

17  See Studies on Thomas Cole, An American Romanticist (Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1967); George Boas, Romanticism in America (New York: Russell and Russell, 1961); Edgar Richardson, American Romantic Painting (New York: Weyhe, 1944); and Bryan Jay Wolf, Romantic Revision: Culture and Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century American Painting and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

18  Cole's Garden of Eden and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden were not only inspired by Milton, but the catalog at the National Academy of Design in 1828 when these works were displayed quoted the lines from Milton. Cole's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso were also inspired by Milton, and Church took his title for Twilight, "Short Arbiter 'Twixt Day and Night from Milton's Paradise Lost, and his concept for The Evening Star from Blake, Keats, and Shelly. Durand's Landscape, Theme from "Thanatopsis" offered a visible depiction of William Cullen Bryant's poem by the same name, and Landscape, Summer Morning (Early Morning at Cold Spring), was inspired by another Bryant poem. Other authors who provided themes for the Hudson River school painters include William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Washington Irving, Sir Walter Scott, and Lord Byron. See Kelly, Church, 28-32, 107; Novak, Nature and Culture, 56; Powell, Cole, 9, 20, 74-78.

19  See Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), and Novak, Nature and Culture, 3-10.

20  Kelly, Church, 22-29, 101-119; Powell, Cole, 19; Janson, Whittredge, 36; Savage and Holt, Hudson River. Frederic Church memorialized significant moments in American history in such works as Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford, in 1636, West Rock, New Haven, and his two paintings of The Charter Oak, while Cole painted Daniel Boone and His Cabin at Great Osage Lake. While studying at the realist Dusseldorf school, Worthington Whittredge posed as two characters in Emmanuel Leutze's epic George Washington Crossing the Delaware. The dark volcanic clouds in Church's Cotopaxi and the thinly veiled symbolism of his Our Banner in the Sky suggest the threatening clouds of the Civil War he saw on the horizon.

21  Examples include Frederic Church's Twilight among the Mountains, New England Landscape (Evening after a Storm), New England Scenery, Home by the Lake (Scene in the Catskill Mountains), and Sunset Landscape (A Country Home). Plates and commentary can be found in Franklin Kelly and Gerald L. Carr, The Early Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church (1845-1854) (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1987).

22  Kelly and Carr, Early Landscapes, 66-69, 73, 92.

23  Another frequent theme of humanity in harmony with nature was that of harvest scenes in settings of great beauty, for example, Church's West Rock, New Haven (1849), Jasper Cropsey's American Harvesting (1851), Asher Durand's Haying (1838) and The First Harvest in the Wilderness (1855), and Jerome Thompson's The Haymakers, Mount Mansfield, Vermont (1859).

24  Thomas Cole, "Essay on American Scenery," in McCoubrey, American Art, 109, cited in Kelly and Carr, Early Landscapes, 73.

25  Kelly and Carr, Early Landscapes, 91-93.

26  Ibid., 43.

27 Earl Powell, National Gallery of Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992), 234.

28  Kelly, Church, 12.

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