Monday, March 26, 2012

Final week Hudson River School at Columbia Museum of Art

Winter Twilight Near Albany, N.Y. (1858) George Henry Boughton; Collection of the NY Historical Society

This is the final week (April 1 is the last day) for an impressive show that's been up at the Columbia Museum of Art since November: "Nature and the Grand American Vision: Masterpieces of the Hudson River School Painters."   Just speaking personally, the show resonates for me on a couple of levels, one of which is that I've spent some time with these paintings before: the show originates from the collections of the New York Historical Society, at the other end of the block of West 77th Street from where I lived for some years in the 1980's and 90's. (It's across the street from the Museum of Natural History). The other "resonating point" for me is that, as a New Yorker for so many years, I treasured opportunities to get out of the city and spent much time hiking and exploring some of the very areas along the Hudson or elsewhere in upstate New York that are portrayed in many of these landscapes (Lake George, for example, one of my favorites as it was for many of the Hudson River School artists, like Jasper Cropsey). 

That's why one of the most delightful features of this show, for me, was the enormous mid-19th-century annotated map of the Hudson, from its source in the Adirondacks to its mouth at New York City, lined across a whole wall of one gallery. Also fascinating (if you're a map freak like me) are several cases of travel guides and maps from the 18th and 19th centuries pertaining to this then-quite-wild area of the nation, assembled from the University of South Carolina Library's Special Collections. In fact, this Friday at noon in the Rare Books Room of the USC Library there will be a lecture (free with pre-registration) on some of this material and how it relates to the work of the HRS artists, given by Special Collections Librarian Jeffrey Makala, which I really hope to catch. 

 I'm not an art expert so this isn't really a review of the show itself; for that I happily steer you to two fine pieces in our city's paper of record, the Free Times: a preview piece by Jeffrey Day from last November and Mary Gilkerson's review of the show in FT from a couple of weeks ago. The exhibition is lopsided in the sense that it's dominated numerically by pieces from Asher Brown Durand and a couple of other artists, while some noted HRS painters are barely there (only one piece by Frederic Church, for example, and of a scene in the Andes to boot). The star of the show of course is the renowned five-painting cycle by Thomas Cole, "The Course of Empire." In an exhibition of big, gasp-inducing landscapes, these works still knock you over the head with their virtuosity as well as their rather heavy-handed allegorical message. They're important American paintings, not to be missed: 
Thomas Cole. Oil on canvas, 1836; Collection of The New-York Historical Society

But for all the big, bold landscapes that make up most of "Nature and the Grand American Vision" at the CMA, it's a couple of the smaller, more intimate works that captured my attention the most, the ones I circled back around to a couple of times before walking out the door. Some, like the winter scene at the top of this post by George Boughton or the Hackensack Meadows scene by George Inness, put me in mind of some of the works by the French artists of the Barbizon School: 
George Inness (1825–1894)
Hackensack Meadows, Sunset, 1859
Oil on canvas
New-York Historical Society
Whether your taste runs to these smaller works, or the enormous canvases of an idealized American landscape that perhaps was and perhaps was not...this is an exhibition worth seeing before it leaves, a special opportunity to see all these works together without having to go to New York, an important part of the story of American art.