When setting out to visit the new exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the initial reaction can be to observe the pieces as an art scholar would - with precise attention to detail, emphasizing the stylistic wonders within each piece, scratching the chin ever so inquisitively. But unsurprisingly, everyone who wants to attend the exhibit will not exclusively be art scholars, not even close; but The Hudson River School is definitely not one to miss. The collection comes to Milwaukee from the Louvre in Paris where it stayed roughly six months, and is currently on a grand tour as the New York Historical Society (the collection’s home) renovates some of its space. The Milwaukee Art Museum is incredibly thrilled to hold this early 19th century collection for the next several months, and MAM wants the public to be excited too. Now, assuming the city is not overflowing with art academics, it’s important to know the basics of this collection in order to fully grasp its weight. It’s simple to stroll uninformed through the museum, establishing which pieces appeal to individual aesthetics, but that is not the only way to appreciate these astounding works. The collection aims to portray the rise and fall of civilization, which is something any city can understand in relation to their cultural and economic history . The power in the pieces is largely gained from understanding the contextual significance of each, which is why this collection could definitely use a crash course on “how to receive the exhibit as a beginning art scholar”.
Before attending, understand the collection's theme: 19th century American Landscapes. Be ready to embrace the great outdoors and, essentially, a perspective of The United States that was fresh and new. The artists worked to make their pieces realistic in order to reflect the land in as accurate a way as they could, while still interpreting the landscape with their individual styles. Each artists has a unique hand, which is why taking a close-up view largely impacts the experience. Some major artists in this movement include Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederic Edwin Church. They each have their preferences when creating the image of American nature, which is why it is vital to recognize their individual styles and talents. Some of these styles fall within the three categories of paintings in the collection, and being able to spot these changes can be helpful when trying to make sense of the work: the beautiful, the sublime, and the picturesque.
The beautiful will largely include lighter brush-strokes, a calming and pastoral aesthetic with softer colors; artist and founder of the movement, Thomas Cole, frequently used this style in his portrayal of the American landscapes. The sublime is a bit darker with the focus lying in the "awe" moment of viewing the image. It attempts to wow the viewer and express an emotional response upon capturing the landscape, while also evoking an emotional response in the audience; colors are sharper, bolder. The sublime attempts to merge the artists' awe with the terror of that moment. Female artist Louisa Davis Minot uses this style in her painting of Niagara Falls. Finally, the picturesque encompasses both the beautiful and the sublime, creating more of an internal dialogue between the rise and fall of civilization. The symbolism will become more apparent in the picturesque, shedding light on the message within the piece that may have been more difficult to previously notice.
In addition to the stylistic categorization, there are also a few visual tips that could aid the viewing experience and overall comprehension. The first would be vantage point, or understanding where "you" are in the painting - essentially the angle in which the artist approached nature. This will help give perspective to the piece, and it puts the audience in the shoes of the artist, experiencing this scene for the first time. Secondly, eye movement throughout the painting, how the artist frames the scene, and where the audience begins and ends within the painting are all important aspects of the visual experience. It will help point out key features, or what the artist intended to be the most important aspect of the piece. Lastly, being aware of symbolic elements will emphasize the artist's underlying intentions. Focus on broken branches, Natives, and cut down trees in the pieces since much of the symbolism deals with what has been touched by man, and the damage it dealt to nature in the process.
Understanding how best to personally approach the art is obviously vital in the viewer’s experience, but it is not complete without knowledge of the major artists within The Hudson River School. Thomas Cole, as stated above, was the founder of the movement. Cole began his journey in 1825 where he traveled up the Hudson River in a steamship. He was an artist who emphasized personally experiencing nature rather than acquiring knowledge from a text, and tried to convey that enthusiasm on the canvas. He wanted to explore the “West”, and did so with a vision in mind of how to relate his world to this new, undocumented world. Cole’s art focuses on the cyclical theory that civilization had a beginning and an end, which raises a vital question that we still consider today: would (and will) American democracy break that pattern? Europe was a large influence for Cole, focusing on the rise and fall of the major European civilizations and how everything reverted back to nature. Nature, he believed, was both the beginning and the end, and this is a rich point for meditation when visiting the exhibit. Cole’s most well known collection was a series of 5 paintings, “The Course of Empire”, which portrayed this cyclical pattern in a way that mirrored the seasons while working from beginning to end in the course of a day. When scratching the chin over this final piece in the exhibit, send the eye to the reoccurring mount seen in each of the five. The mount’s surroundings will change drastically, but by observing the collection with the mount as a focal point, the rest of the story will make more sense, or, if nothing else, help to stay grounded within the space. That will be an important tip when examining most pieces within the collection. Cole’s organization of the paintings was an important aspect to him in the original display of the collection; The Milwaukee Art Museum takes note of this by displaying an image of Cole’s original display map, but sadly, the museum does not have the space to organize it that way.
Another major artist to acknowledge is Albert Bierstadt, who is practically The Hudson River School rebel. One of his most astounding paintings, “Donner Lake From the Summit”, was essentially a job where he was supposed to capture the American Railways. Bierstadt mildly followed the guidelines - his painting technically does still portray the remnants of a small railway - but it was not exactly what the original commissioner was looking for. The painting depicts the location where the Donner Party (most of who died tragically) camped out during their journey out west three decades earlier. The oil painting is immense, roughly 12 feet long, and by far the largest painting in the collection. It’s not simply the size that causes the audience to linger at this piece, but the detail in each stroke creates a visually astounding experience. The colors reflect both “the beautiful” and “the sublime”, along with the almost fearful awe of the story behind it. His painting was never bought by the original commissioner, but instead sold at a private art gallery Bierstadt held in California. This painting and several others in the collection have actually inspired conservation efforts in The United States to preserve some of the stunning landscapes that these artists have captured. It is a beautiful thing to know works of art from over a century ago can still have national effects today.
Several other artists within The Hudson River School have made incredible contributions, but those, however, will just have to be experienced first hand at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The exhibit will be open until the 8th of May, 2016.
Written by Megan Gray
Edited by Bethany Price.