Museum’s ‘Poetry of Nature’: A New York State of mind

PHOTO BY KAILA JONES

A new exhibition at the Vero Beach Museum of Art brings summer in the Catskills to wintertime in Vero Beach. Titled “The Poetry of Nature: Hudson River School Landscapes from the New-York Historical Society,” the exhibition, which includes 45 paintings by 25 artists, is on view in the museum’s Holmes and Titelman galleries through May 2.

The show has been on tour since 2016 in museums in Pennsylvania, Kansas, Massachusetts and Ohio before making its last stop here in Florida, but it isn’t exactly the same exhibition in Vero as seen at its previous venues.

“We added some significant works, with some of the large ones you will see in the Titelman Gallery,” says VBMA senior curator Anke Van Wagenberg.

The proof of the pudding is the largest painting in the show, a 6-foot-by-10-foot canvas by Albert Bierstadt titled “Donner Lake at the Summit.”

This magnum opus, says Van Wagenberg, was painted in 1873 to commemorate the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad. It was commissioned by railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington.

“Wait a minute,” you may be thinking. “This is a Hudson River School show. Isn’t Donner Lake in California?”

Well, yes, and yes. Today the lake and the mountain pass, both named after the ill-fated Donner Party, is within the town limits of now-trendy Truckee, Calif., less than a half-hour’s drive northwest of Lake Tahoe (35 minutes, if you are coming from Reno, Nev.).

And Bierstadt, who was born in Solingen, Germany, and raised from infancy in New Bedford, Mass., got his start painting the landscapes of New England and the Hudson River Valley. He is considered a major figure of the Hudson River School.

Don’t be misled by the term “school,” says Van Wagenberg.

She explains, “The Hudson River School was not a super-coherent group. It is not a school in the sense that it is an academy or a physical building. It’s more like a style that artists naturally did when they started traveling there,” to paint upstate New York’s wild beauty.

As for “Donner Lake at the Summit,” Bierstadt had already made two trips out west, to Yosemite Valley and the Rocky Mountains, where he made sketches for the epic paintings he completed in his Hudson River Valley studio in Irvington, N.Y. By the time of his commission for the railroad, he was an art star on both sides of the Atlantic.

Perhaps the hubris of his fame induced Bierstadt to show a daring scene of Donner Lake from the railroad’s highest pass, looking directly into the sun. The view presents a back-lit vista of the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains; between two framing peaks, the lake and the rugged distance beyond it are washed pale in the intense light.

As for the railroad that is the subject of this grand gesture?

“We are way up high on a rock looking down. You can see the train going through the rocks here,” Van Wagenberg says, pointing to a sliver of detail on the far-right side of the immense canvas.

Needless to say, Bierstadt’s patron was not amused. Huntington, no doubt, wanted to see a big, beautiful locomotive and goods-laden cars speeding (relatively speaking) through the pass, with the landscape as an accessory, not the subject of the painting.

Another VBMA request for this show is in the same gallery, and it, too, is by Bierstadt. “Autumn Woods, Oneida County, State of New York,” of 1886, measures 4 ½ feet high and 7 feet wide. One of the more colorful landscapes in the show, it depicts a tall stand of trees, their autumn foliage mirrored in the still waters before them.

Says Van Wagenberg, “In 1887, this painting was sent to a big exhibition in New York. It is such an American landscape. I don’t think I’ve seen this type of landscape in Europe. Holland (where Van Wagenberg is from) doesn’t look like this. When you come from Europe and first move here (to the U.S.) you go, ‘Oh my God, such a huge sky, and the vastness!’”

In the Holmes Gallery, Van Wagenberg speaks about the “founding founders” of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Asher B. Durand (1796-1886).

Like Bierstadt, Cole was born overseas. He came to this country with his family from England when he was 17 years old. They settled in Steubenville, Ohio, which, in 1818, was the Wild West of its time. Cole later moved to Philadelphia and found employment in an engraver’s shop.
Says Van Wagenberg, “Cole went to the Adirondacks through the Catskills in 1825. After a couple of years, he decided to settle in Catskill, N.Y.”

A painting by him in the show, “Catskill Creek, N.Y,” is one of a series of 12 paintings of the scene that Cole did between 1827 and 1845; the one at the VBMA dates from the latter year. The painting’s background features the wave-like profile of North Mountain. In the foreground, a small figure pulls a boat from the aforementioned creek.

Van Wagenberg says that the Hudson River School artists often accessorized their landscape paintings with a human figure or two to give a sense of the scale and grandeur of the scene. Cole is represented by two paintings in this exhibition; the other is an imaginary Alpen landscape.

By contrast, Durand has 11 works in the show; 10 exquisite landscape paintings and one handsome self-portrait.

Like Cole, Durand started out as an engraver of other artists’ work. Unlike Cole, Durand became well known for his engravings, which, before he picked up the brush, included bank notes. After going on a painting expedition with Cole to the Adirondacks in 1837, Durand turned his full attention to landscape painting.

The largest painting by Durand in the exhibition is almost 5 feet high by 4 feet wide. “Primeval Forest,” ca. 1854, is an elaborate drawing on canvas in brown oil paint of a forest interior.
“It is a cartoon, a full-size study for another painting, which has been lost,” says Van Wagenberg.

Arguably, the most beautiful paintings by Durand in the exhibition are his oil on canvas studies, of which there are four. One of these, the 18-inch-by-22-inch “Study from Nature: Trees, Newburgh, 1949,” stands out from the crowd. It shows a group of trees, with two heavily needled firs front and center. The detailed clusters of needles on those trees are remarkable: three-dimensional, and more akin to dense stitchery than painted illusion.

And yet the naturalness, the rightness, of their portrayal is the quality for which you will remember them long after exiting the exhibition.

As though to underscore that this study from nature is “only” a sketch, Durand allows the trees’ trunks to fade away into the insubstantial nothingness of the buff-colored ground at their feet. There, where reality gives the lie to art’s deceit, you can see a couple of the artist’s pencil marks.

So, while you may think “big paintings for a big land” when you think of Hudson River School masterpieces, think again. Bierstadt’s big paintings drag you bodily into them, but Durand’s smaller ones invite the soul to reverie.

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