Over the past twenty years, major books have been written about the Hudson River School that attempt to explore the social, cultural, political, and economic forces that fostered its creative energies. This past year, 2009, witnessed the 400th anniversary of the European settlement of the Hudson, and with it, several new books on the Hudson River School painters. Included on this list is Evelyn Trebilcock and Valerie Balint’s Glories of the Hudson, a study of Frederic Church and the inspiration he found at home.
In the nineteenth century, the Hudson River Valley emerged as a leader in American artistic and cultural life. The first recognized schools of American literature and art, the Hudson River writers and the Hudson River School of landscape painting defined the valley as a symbol of America’s promise. Painters such as Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and Sanford Robinson Gifford painted rich landscapes and imbued them with spiritual and mythical meanings, much like the Hudson Valley authors James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving did in their writings. As one literary scholar of the period has described, the nineteenth century landscape painters and authors highlighted the “manifold cultural meanings attached to the Hudson River Valley in the first half of the nineteenth century and exemplified[d] the process of national self-definition.”
No one epitomized this more than Frederic Edwin Church. Arguably the most famous of the Hudson River School painters (vying with his own mentor, Thomas Cole, for that spot), he was certainly one of the most prolific and successful of the nineteenth-century landscape artists. The years that Church painted were particularly dynamic ones in American, and Hudson River, history. The United States was emerging as a major commercial power with the initial stirrings of industrialization and burgeoning population resulting from large-scale immigration. An important part of the economic growth of the nation was the result of the Hudson’s farms, industries, and transportation networks. In turn, the Hudson served as a powerful symbol of emerging America.
Frederic Church was a student of Cole but soon stood beside his teacher and Asher Durand as among the most successful landscape painters of the yet-to-be named Hudson River school. Useful introductions to the life of Church and the school are made in opening chapters by John Howatt and Ken Myers. Myers notes that even though Church occasionally strayed from the region for his inspiration (some South American and Middle Eastern locales served as occasional subjects), his primary interest was the Hudson River Valley, which he continued to concentrate on even after virtually disabling arthritis made painting difficult. In these later years, Church focused on what has become his most famous project, his Moorish-style home high atop the hills overlooking the Hudson, Olanna.
Evelyn Trebilcock and Valerie Balint provide the core of the book, a narrative of Church’s work put into the context of his life and, of course, his home. The authors do a very good job in providing the background to Church’s work and contextualizing it in the framework of his stylized home. Indeed, Trebilcock and Balint are able to provide the familial milieu that structured Church’s life and work; the tragic death of his young children, the triumph of his spirit to overcome the limitations of his disease, and his life-long devotion to interpreting and rendering a spiritual Hudson River. This very handsome volume is enhanced by many of Church’s paintings that are beautifully reproduced, most in color. The book serves well as either an introduction to Church’s work, or as enlightening view of an under-studied subject of this painter’s vision.
—Thomas S. Wermuth