The Hudson River to Niagara Falls: 19th-Century American Landscape Paintings from the New-York Historical Society

In 2009, a wide range of programming was initiated to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s historic exploration of the Hudson River. As part of that celebration, the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at the State University of New York at New Paltz organized  The Hudson River to Niagara Falls: 19th-Century American Landscape Paintings from the New-York Historical Society. This exhibition, the third in a trilogy of shows on Hudson River imagery originally conceived by Neil Trager, Director Emeritus of the Dorsky Museum, was curated by Dr. Linda Ferber, senior art historian and now museum director emerita of the New-York Historical Society. The forty-five works displayed were all from the Historical Society’s permanent collection and were painted between 1818and 1892. While Ferber included paintings by well-known artists such as Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, John Casilear, Jasper Cropsey, and George Inness, she also included works by lesser-known but remarkable artists such as Louisa Minot, thus demonstrating the breadth and depth of the Historical Society’s collection.  

The corresponding exhibition catalogue includes essays by Dr. Ferber and Kerry Dean Carso, associate professor of Art History at SUNY New Paltz. Lavishly illustrated, the catalogue allows the reader to travel geographically along the Hudson River, starting in New York Harbor and proceeding up the river through the Hudson Highlands, into the Catskills, westward to Niagara Falls, and North again to Lake George and the Adirondacks.  

In her essay “Landscape Views and Landscape Visions,” Dr. Ferber establishes the difference between the topographical and the idealized landscape. As she notes, the “contrast is one between prose and poetry.” Ferber is quick to note the balance struck by artists who employed the vocabulary of the “sublime,” “picturesque,” and the “beautiful” when painting the nineteenth-century American landscape. Just as the illustrations to this catalogue commence with views of New York City, Ferber begins her discussion of landscapes with the city as an active port and a popular example of an urban landscape. The impact of industrial progress is a feature of this essay as is the importance of the landscape experience to city dwellers. Ferber poignantly highlights selected paintings in which artists consciously included details of commerce and industry along the Hudson. These can be read as reflections of growth or, as was often the case with Cole and Durand, their reaction to the invasion of the railroad in the American landscape. Ferber has chosen imagery that represents the well-traveled landscape in America. Sites of wonder such as Niagara Falls were destinations for tourists—then as now.

As a complement to Dr. Ferber’s insightful essay, Kerry Dean Carso contributes to the catalogue, “Temples, Castles, Villas, Ruins: The Role of Architectural Association in American Landscape Painting.” Dr. Carso interprets the use of architectural forms in landscape painting as the mark of human presence in nature. She deftly selects the Gothic Revival to make her point. An architectural style replete with historical associations, the inclusion of Gothic structures or ruins may suggest a relationship to the pervasive romantic spirit or alternatively suggest a comparison to Europe’s past as a means to celebrate a progressive American future. As they appear in the paintings discussed by Carso, the Gothic castles or ruins really were a part of the American landscape—at times employed to identify a popular location or to establish an American tradition of ruins.  

As museums continue the trend of contextualizing the visual with the historical/cultural/social, we look increasingly to the smaller museums for truly innovative exhibition concepts and creative curatorial vision, as demonstrated by the well-written and thoughtful essays included in the catalogue The Hudson River to Niagara Falls: 19th-Century American Landscape Paintings from the New-York Historical Society. This exhibition and its corresponding catalogue may have been the third in a trilogy, but this reader will eagerly await future landscape exhibitions at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art. Likewise, the armchair traveler will certainly want a copy of this catalogue for their personal library.  

While Drs. Ferber and Carso provide the historical context for our better understanding of how landscape painting functioned beyond pure aesthetic pleasure in the nineteenth century, there is yet a timeless appeal to these works. In her foreword, Sara Pasti, director of the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, summarizes this sentiment: “May those who gaze upon this river valley in another hundred years enjoy the same views that we now see in these paintings and in the landscape that surrounds us.”


—Nancy Siegel, Towson University