Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Moving Mountains

How much did the Hudson River School painters alter what they saw? Did they move mountains and trees around to make a better landscape composition?

The quick answer is that they moved rocks and trees, but not mountains.

Thanks to the work of John J. Henderson and Roger E. Belson of the White Mountain Art and Artists organization of New Hampshire, you can see for yourself. Mr. Henderson has taken photos from the same vantage points that the 19th Century artists used, giving us a remarkable chance to compare each painting with the scene that inspired it.

It’s hard to be exactly sure what foregrounds the artists were looking at 150 years ago, but it’s clear that they drew the mountain contours very carefully. They may have increased the height a bit, but they were faithful to the silhouette.

The issue of mountain contours was a hot topic among 19th Century landscape painters. Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), one of the co-founders of the Hudson River School, and its most influential writer, addressed the subject in his Letters on Landscape Painting (1855). The artist, he said, may:
…displace a tree, for instance, if disagreeable, or render it a more perfect one of its kind if retained, but the elevations and depressions of the earth’s surface composing the middle ground and distance, the magnitude of objects, and extent of space presented in the view, characteristic outline, undulating or angular, of all the great divisions, may not be changed in the least perceptible degree, most especially the mountain and hill forms. On these God has set his signet, and Art may not remove it when the picture professes to represent the scene.”

I would warrant that these very words were ringing in the ears of each of the artists who painted these pictures. (Click on pictures to enlarge.)

Thanks, Chris.
For 12 more examples, visit http://whitemountainart.com/PhotoComparisons.htm.
For more about Durand, visit http://www.outdoorpainting.com/History/Asher-Durand.php
Full text of "Letters on Landscape Painting" appears in the book Kindred Spirits, by Linda Ferber, 2007

Tomorrow: Sky Panels


Patrick Dizon said...

I always wondered about this for so long! This is great. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

And yet Durand's most famous work "Kindred Spirits" (which sold in 2005 for a record 35 million) is a totally conjured version of the scene. Proving ??? - you tell me!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous raises an important point. Durand and his contemporaries didn't paint only topographical portraits of specific places. Many of his most famous canvases, including "Kindred Spirits," were idealized or synthetic landscape visions made to express a larger theme——in the case of "Kindred Spirits" honoring the memory of Cole. But Durand is consistent in his thinking, because of the proviso: ..."when the picture professes to represent the scene.”

Unknown said...

It's so interesting and refreshing to see how seriously they took their philosophies.

Victor said...

Is there any equivalent to "The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century" for 19th century landscape painters? I'm interested in learning how they composed their pictures and what their technical procedures were. Does "Letters on Landscape Painting" address these subjects?

Anonymous said...

Victor: "Letters on Landscape Painting" is the best source for Hudson River School philosophy and thinking. I haven't found the full text on the web. It used to be only accessible on microfilm, but if you find the Ferber book, you can get the full text. It doesn't get into painting techniques or composition in the way modern "how-to" books do, but I find it a huge source of inspiration.

Another great source is John Ruskin's "Modern Painters" (several volumes). I think that is on Google books and other Web sources. It's some of the most eloquent (and at times purple) prose on the subject of landscape painting, but there are lots of useful tips, too.

My favorite early 20th C. source is John F. Carlson's "Elementary Principles of Landscape Painting."

All of these were hugely influential in their day, and if you like I can riff on them in future posts.