Hudson River exhibit shows nature's role in American art
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things
Nature makes the news in Central Texas largely on account of its wrath: Droughts, wildfires, flash floods, hurricanes and tornadoes lead us to take note of nature's power.
In that sense, we share the sentiment that inspired Hudson River School painters, though they chose to celebrate the beautiful results of nature's unspoiled might, not the destructive.
That's clear from the beginning of "American Scenery: Different Views in Hudson River School Painting," an impressive exhibit now at the Blanton Museum of Art.
A sprawling 116 paintings are on view, selected by Judith Hansen O'Toole, director of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pa., and culled from a private collection owned by a Pennsylvania man who prefers to stay anonymous. ("He feels that, too often, the ego of the collector becomes too much a part of the collections," O'Toole explained when the exhibit opened at the Westmoreland in 2006.)
Though the Hudson River School, which flourished between 1825 and 1875, was not an actual school, or even much of a codified philosophy per se, it nevertheless is considered to be the first American painting movement, with artists such as Thomas Cole, Asher B. Duran and Frederic Edwin Church all striving to capture the spiritual awe they gleaned from the natural landscape.
Such untamed wilderness represented the uniquely American character, the artists believed, with all its independence, abundance and possibility. (That American Indians had peopled the continent long before Europeans arrived was misunderstood by the Hudson River School artists and instead only added to the erroneous view of the New World as some kind of primal place.)
O'Toole gives a fresh perspective on the work of the Hudson River School by organizing the exhibit not in the expected chronological order, but by grouping paintings according to similar themes and characteristics that illuminate how these artists methodically worked through different ways of understanding nature.
Grouped together, for example, are paintings that examine the change of seasons in one particular location, from glistening spring greens to brilliant autumnal colors. (Winter never proved a popular season to glorify.) The Hudson River School painters used weather conditions to capture the different moods of nature, often painting the same landscape in sun and in storm.
One of the more charming differentiations the exhibit makes is the juxtaposition between landscapes with cows and landscapes featuring deer.
As O'Toole suggests, the Hudson River School artists employed cows as a symbol of human domestication of nature and also as a certain indication of prosperity.
Deer, however, represented the fragile innocence of the natural world, and their presence in a landscape reinforced such an ideal. Later in the 19th century, though, deer standing alert came to suggest the threat of civilization's encroachment.
Elsewhere in the exhibit, it's possible to similarly compare a section of unpeopled landscapes with those showing folks reveling in the great outdoors at work or at play.
As the 19th century progressed, though, the Hudson River School painters began to take note of the impact of mankind's infringement on the natural world, most poignantly rendered in several sunset and autumnal scenes of foundries, smelters and mills or other then-industrial structures, a trend the exhibit deftly makes note of in one of its final sections. (Large as it is, "American Scenery" occupies the Blanton's entire first floor of special exhibition galleries.)
For its part, the Blanton complements the Hudson River School display with "Go West! Representations of the American Frontier," an appealing exhibit that's culled from the C.R. Smith Collection of Art of the American West, one of the museum's founding collections.
Fearsome cavalry battle scenes, cowboys and ranchers at work, representations of American Indians — the march of manifest destiny is rendered in what are fairly romantically-styled sculpture and paintings by Frederic Remington and Albert Bierstadt, among others.
"Go West" acts as something of the Western counterpart to the Eastern-focused "American Scenery," offering a likewise thematically organized exhibit that shows how artists depicted — sometimes problematically, by today's standards — the country's westward expansion.
Taken together, though, "American Scenery" and "Go West" make for a good balance — astutely presenting an important aspect of America's artistic legacy and its complex relationship with nature in clear and categorical ways.
Contact Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at 445-3699
‘American Scenery: Different Views in Hudson River School Painting'
When: Through May 13
‘Go West! Representations of the American Frontier'
When: Through Sept. 23
Where: Blanton Museum of Art, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Congress Avenue.
Cost: $5-$9 (Thursdays are free)
Information: 471-7324, www.blantonmuseum.org
Tours: Exhibit tours are offered 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 12:30 p.m. Thursdays. Free with museum admission.
‘Voice of the Cowboy: Poetry of Joel Nelson'
When: 6 p.m. April 19
Joel Nelson is the only cowboy poet to have a CD, "The Breaker in the Pen," nominated for a Grammy Award. A working rancher who raises Corriente cattle on a 25,000-acre spread near Alpine, Nelson both pays homage to and pushes the genre of traditional cowboy poetry. "Good poetry is good poetry and it crosses boundaries of culture and genre," Nelson once told an interviewer. Nelson gives a live recitation of his work and poems from the cowboy canon.