2021. My year of EXPLORATION. I love this theme, especially as it applies to art because exploration is a process combining old and new. Explorers visit new places, yet often uncover old artifacts. Exploration brings past and future together into a meaningful present.
I love learning new things. I love delving into history, too. And I love searching, browsing, dusting off old things, following up leads, and seeing how far one idea can take me. I never know quite where I’m going to end up, and that’s what makes exploration such fun.
Because of the pandemic restrictions — and our common-sense practices — I’m not getting out and traveling, although I hope to do that later in the year. So my explorations are online as I dig into old books and magazines, track down famous names from the past, and visit online exhibitions of art.
The focus of my art study this year will be centered around tonalism, but it won’t exclude other schools. In fact, just as a good historian studies events occurring before and after a specific period, I know it’s important to be aware of the art movements that led up to tonalism, and ones that followed.
The most obvious starting point for my exploration is with the Hudson River School. There could be no better place for me to begin than here. As a child, I was exposed to a few famous works of art by a few famous artists — Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Mary Cassatt, Joshua Reynolds, Degas, Monet, and Andrew Wyeth — yet art was not a significant part of my experience. It was only within the last decade that I discovered Asher B. Durand.
Works such as A Creek in the Woods left me breathless. How could anyone paint something so beautiful? This was long before I ever thought of becoming an artist, long before I uttered those fateful words and decided I should learn to draw. This was back in the days when art itself was a mysterious, almost miraculous thing that defied understanding.
It was in that moment that my true love for art began. Until the discovery of Durand, I hadn’t seen many landscape paintings, especially not paintings that reflected the American continent. But here, with his painting, I saw not only the depictions of trees and rivers and skies, but a sense of majesty and wonder. Quite simply, I was awestruck by Durand, and his contemporary artists, a group who became known as The Hudson River School.
In 1917, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York held an exhibition of works from the Hudson River Artists. Although the movement itself was no longer current, this was the first major showing of the works as a retrospective on the art.
The Hudson River School was disparaged, you see. Even the name of the movement was used in a perjorative sense. It was a “failed school” in the eyes of many art critics. The works were sometimes deemed primitive, mere representations of scenery with nothing of meaning behind them. Really?
Seventy years later, in 1987, the Metropolitan Museum held another exhibition of works by the Hudson River School. By this time, the greatess of their art had come to be recognized; the term was no longer a derogatory tag. This exhibition was titled “An American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School.” As is usual with exhibitions, a manuscript was published to help viewers understand the art and put the work into context.
It was with this exhibition manuscript in hand that I set out on my own exploration of “An American Paradise.” From the beginning pages, I was hooked. My “journey of discovery” had begun. I copied a few words from the book to serve as a guiding principle for my studies:
Work and wonder were common companions in such an exploratory situation …
Indeed, my study will involve work, but will also include a great deal of wonder. Even now, I’m beset with questions. How could anyone look upon these exquisite works of art and not see their beauty, not be awed by the talent of the artists who created them?
Much has to do, of course, with the fact that art doesn’t exist on its own. It is always part of other things — culture, society, politics, philosophy, spirituality — and oftentimes it’s not what is created that determines its value but when. With the Hudson River School, there were criticisms about the works being old-fashioned, not in keeping with current trends in art. Landscape art was often considered as “lesser art”, not to be compared to works with religious and mythological themes. American artists lacked the sensibilities — and training — of European artists.
A lot of sputtering went on between the members of the National Academy of Design and the Hudson River School painters, leading them to eventually create their own Society of American Artists. Of course, the bickering continued.
“An American Paradise” is a collection of essays about the Hudson River School. The history of the movement is intriguing. So far, I’m only mid-way through the first essay, and already I’m hungry to learn as much as I can, not merely about the Hudson River School of art, but about the larger thoughts — our relationship to nature itself. So, I’ve done a bit of digging, and I’ve unearthed two marvelous resources:
I think my jaw dropped a bit as I explored the ideas behind these books. Call me simple-minded or naive, but it never really occurred to me that attitudes toward nature could be different from one generation to another. My own reverence for nature is so strong that I suppose I never thought anyone could ever feel differently.
And so, I’m digging deeper, digging into nineteenth century attitudes and ideas, getting to know not only the artists whose works I admire, but also becoming acquainted with the critics they faced. More good resources I’ve found include these:
And I’m only beginning! I’ve been amazed to see how many valuable references I’ve found through only the first few pages of “An American Paradise”. I’m sure I’ll find many more books, many scholarly articles, and many new works of art to explore.
In some ways I do feel very much like an archaeologist, digging down beneath the surface to find — much to my surprise — that an entire new world is waiting to be dusted off and brought to life. Yes, 2021 will definitely be a year of EXPLORATION — taking me back in time and giving me new perspectives on both art and history.