Following the River Essay

The River That Flows Both Ways

Throughout history the natural landscape has stimulated artistic expression. This makes sense; one can only draw from one’s individual experiences and environment for influences, and the natural landscape, well, surrounds us all. But as obvious as this may seem, there is something more peculiar about the developing philosophical and physical relationships between man and landscape in America at the turn of the nineteenth century. As the physical American landscape expanded during the nineteenth century, so did the collective philosophical understanding of one’s relationship with the surrounding environment.

Rivers offer us poetic parallels to human life, individuals typically reflect upon rivers in spiritual and emotional ways. Following the River is a process; a developing virtual organism to be filled with topical elements that, when combined, attempt to eventually portray a comprehensive, place-based narrative of the school.

The Hudson River was once referred to as the river that flows both ways (Shatemuc) by the Lenape tribe of Manhatta, because the river alternates its flow pattern from north to south according to the Atlantic tides. The Dutchmen who later settled in the region were very conscious of the beauty and untamed nature of the river and her surrounding wilderness. As settlers expanded, the river was used for everything from the transportation of people and goods to a source of food, fuel and inspiration. The expanding frontier offered undeveloped land and natural wonders, which met with popular conceptions of the sublime and pastoral to inspire artists. Much of the cultural expression of the time – particularly among the artists of the Hudson River School – demonstrates a reverence for the river and the mountains that foster it. The Hudson Valley served as both the setting and the inspiration for the first generation of artists from this school. It was the surrounding nature, the valley itself that meant so much to these artists and their supporters.

In his magnum opus Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “the happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship.” Nature – specifically the physical landscape – takes on special importance in the American cultural narrative. The land itself offered freedom – space to establish communities and openly express their beliefs. For many people, the plentiful land and unsullied wilderness of America offered possibilities of new beginnings. To put it simply – landscape is central to the development of the American identity.

The artists associated with this school were deeply aware of this connection between identity and environment. The vastness of Church’s vistas and the humbling nature of Durand’s wilderness evince the challenges and opportunities offered by the American landscape. The art that emerged from the Hudson River School captured societies’ many mixed emotions towards the landscape and American expansion. Arguably, the development of this school of artists is analogous to the development of westward expansion across the continent. As the number of artists associated with this school grew and their collective style was further developed, one’s lust for their landscape paintings decreased for both the artists and the viewer. The mystery and grandeur of the American landscape slowly diminished with each painting that captured the yet-to-be captured nature.