CAMPBELL NORTH ’17
At a time when the American identity seems to be fracturing into two divergent entities, the Wadsworth Atheneum offers an opportunity for reflection on the American identity. The museum is home to one of the largest collections of Hudson River School paintings, housing over 65 pieces from one of the most defining artistic movements in Am
erica’s cultural legacy.
Museum founder, Daniel Wadsworth was critical to the School’s development. Born in 1771, Wadsworth was a member of the first generation of post-Revolution Americans. As such, he collected and commissioned works directly from the School’s artists in an effort to cement the country’s culture. Like many others, Wadsworth subscribed to a general sentiment of American Exceptionalism that defined mid-19th Century America; the combination of expansive wilderness and the country’s youthfulness symbolizes America’s potential for eminence in the New World.
As a new nation, the American landscape was relatively naked, lacking the monuments, ornate palaces and grandiose cathedrals that had come to dominate Europe’s landscape as manifestations of the continent’s long history. Paradoxically, it is exactly this untarnished quality that inspired reverence for the American landscape. The untouched wilderness of the American continent came to represent a clean slate, full of endless possibilities.
The Hudson River School paintings embody this awe and admiration for the American landscape through Romanticism. The School’s founder, Thomas Cole is featured prominently in the Wadsworth collection. An English-born American, Cole was inspired by the New England nature that most Americans were oblivious too, as daily exposure to the vistas had worn down their novelty.
Cole’s “View on Lake Winnipesaukee” (1828) is a light-filled scene, as the energetic sunlight at the center of the painting breaks through the haze of an Indian Summer. This effect serves to enrich the decadent reds, maize yellow, and tawny oranges that color the fall foliage with a golden hue, a crisp contrast to the distant clouds that soften the peaks of the White Mountains featured in the background. Though rare in Hudson River School paintings, a small figure is pictured at the water’s edge. He is insignificant in the scene, dwarfed by the wild, natural beauty of the New Hampshire forests. With a fresh eye, Cole was able to invigorate the American landscape as a symbol of inherent excellence and potential.
This centrality of nature can be seen in “Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford” (1846) by Frederic Edwin Church, a contemporary of Cole. The painting features figures crossing a relatively docile Connecticut river. A lush riverbank and emerald foliage welcome the travelers, as a radiant sun signals them towards a ‘promised land’. Though the painting is intended to portray Hartford’s founding, it is reminiscent of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. In Church’s narrative, Christ as the savior of mankind has been replaced with a warm and welcoming Connecticut wilderness. The untouched nature represents a fresh start, a chance at redemption and subsequently, salvation.
Central to this theme is the notion of nature as sublime. In this context, the ‘sublime’ is intended to describe an entity that is so grand, overwhelming, and limitless as to elicit an emotional response. The Wadsworth collection of Hudson River School paintings achieve this, as the sheer enormity of each canvas and the fierce wilderness depicted makes the viewer stand in awe. Throughout the collection, spectators come to appreciate the vastness of the American countryside, and a desire to finds one’s place in it.
CAMPBELL NORTH ’17