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‘Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School’

“Must I tell you that neither the Alps nor the Appenines, no, nor even Aetna itself, have dimmed, in my eyes, the beauty of our own Catskills?” the Hudson River painter Thomas Cole wrote to a friend in Rome in 1842. “I look on American scenery, if it were possible, with increased pleasure.” Like others of his generation, Cole had made the Grand Tour of Europe’s castles, cathedrals, and ruins. But there was also a domestic Grand Tour, in the Hudson Valley, which focused a new nation’s artists on its breathtaking natural beauty.

Now the Hudson River School’s most famous paintings have themselves embarked on a tour of sorts, traveling from their home at the New-York Historical Society to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And that direction also echoes Cole and his cohort, who eventually turned their gaze to the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the other dramatic landscapes of the American West. These paintings evoke the era’s powerful doctrine of “manifest destiny,” celebrating the inexorable conquest of the West by agents of white civilization. But you also get a sense of the anxiety that attached to this mission, especially in Cole’s massive five-painting series, “The Course of Empire.” The series begins with “Savagery,” works its way up to “Empire,” and culminates in “Destruction” and “Desolation”: in the end, it seems, mankind’s accomplishments will be undone by vanity and violence.

All that will remain is Nature itself, or so we might hope. The Hudson River School painters never doubted it, of course. It’s hard to imagine the savage beauty that they encountered in the Empire State, which has been scarred by centuries of environmental destruction and economic desolation. These majestic paintings call us to preserve what has not already been lost. And we look on American scenery, wherever it is possible, with increased pleasure.

For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit lacma.org.

Category: Exhibition
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Blvd,
Los Angeles, CA