Why I Am a Hudson River School Artist

April 7, 2021

Why I Am a Hudson River School/Rocky Mountain School Artist

The works of nineteenth century artists Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran are the cornerstones for my art. Their paintings embody these properties and values, which I pursue: grand scale, reflecting the grand scale of scenery in the American West; realism+romanticism™—highly realistic foreground elements of nature in which each blade of grass or piece of tree bark or lichen-covered rock becomes significant because of its detail (what photographer Edward Weston called the power of photography to produce “significant presentation of the thing itself”) combined with highly romanticized backgrounds of mountains and unbelievably glorious, luminous clouds; and an overall impact on the viewer of awe when faced with the beauty, majesty, and grandeur of nature.

Their works inspire a desire to travel to distant locations to look upon these treasures and cathedrals of nature oneself—to gaze into the depths and distances of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite Valley and the heights of the Rocky Mountains and the High Sierra. To feel both exhilarated that such places exist and that one can feel such overwhelming wonder and such profound gratitude that they do exist as well as gratitude for one’s senses—of sight, hearing, feeling, and cognition—that enables the individual to process and later, to recall the experience, and to carry that sense of awe and inspiration away with them and enable them to aspire to live up to and strive towards heroic achievements each in their own situations and in responses to the challenges of life.

Albert Bierstadt's Among the Sierra Nevada (Smithsonian American Museum of Art)

Thomas Moran's Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (Smithsonian American Museum of Art)

In practical application, striving for these values means the challenge I set for myself is not merely to find the best time of day, and even the best day of the year, in which the quality of light and the angle of light is best for my subject and purposes, but photographing the landscape with the approach that a landscape photograph is not so much about the land as it is about the weather. As John Szarkowski, Director of Photography for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, said about Ansel Adams “Ansel’s landscapes—more surely more than any of the great 19th century photographers who worked over much of the same territory, are much less about sculpture, they’re less about geology, they’re less about permanence, they’re less about the solidity of the rocks, than about the ephemeral nature of the rocks. They are always defined by the transient quality of the light, by the weather…. If you’re going to photograph the mountain as weather, as opposed to geology, you’ve got to have a better technique.” And, I would add, not just technique, but persistence—the willingness to go, and to go again and again, the discipline hike miles into the wilderness laden with heavy gear, to set up the camera, to compose the photograph, and then…to not press the cable release and return home empty-handed rather than waste film when conditions are not right, knowing you will return however many times it takes to get the right conditions. Ultimate Quality™.

Canyonlands Sunset
Canyonlands Sunset

Click for my Canyonlands Sunset Ultimate Quality Fine Art Mural Print Video

A Brief History of the Hudson River School of Art

The Hudson River School was a mid-19th century American art movement embodied by a group of landscape painters whose aesthetic vision was influenced by Romanticism. Hudson River School paintings reflect themes of discovery and exploration. Hudson River School landscapes are characterized by their realistic, detailed, and sometimes idealized portrayal of nature. They were inspired by European masters such as Claude Lorrain, John Constable, and J. M. W. Turner.

Thomas Cole is generally acknowledged as the founder of the Hudson River School. The second generation of Hudson River School artists emerged after Thomas Cole's premature death in 1848; its members included Cole's prize pupil Frederic Edwin Church, John Frederick Kensett, and Sanford Robinson Gifford. Works by artists of this second generation are often described as examples of Luminism. Kensett, Gifford, and Church were also among the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Most of the finest works of the second generation were painted between 1855 and 1875. During that time, artists such as Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt were celebrities. They were both influenced by the Düsseldorf school of painting, and Bierstadt had studied in that city for several years. Thousands of people would pay 25 cents per person to view Church’s paintings such as Niagara (1857) and Heart of the Andes (1859) and Bierstandt’s The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak (1863) and Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California (1868). The epic size of these landscapes was unexampled in earlier American painting and reminded Americans of the vast, untamed, and magnificent wilderness areas in their country. (Excerpted from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...)

Bierstadt (January 7, 1830 – February 18, 1902) became part of the second generation of the Hudson River School in New York, an informal group of like-minded painters who started painting along the Hudson River. Their style was based on carefully detailed paintings with romantic, almost glowing lighting, sometimes called luminism. Bierstadt was an important interpreter of the western landscape, and he is also grouped with the Rocky Mountain School. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Bierstadt)

Thomas Moran (February 12, 1837 – August 25, 1926) was an American painter and printmaker of the Hudson River School in New York whose work often featured the Rocky Mountains. A talented illustrator and exquisite colorist, Thomas Moran was hired as an illustrator at Scribner's Monthly. During the late 1860s, he was appointed the chief illustrator for the magazine, a position that helped him launch his career as one of the premier painters of the American landscape, in particular, the American West. Moran along with Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, and William Keith are sometimes referred to as belonging to the Rocky Mountain School of landscape painters because of all the Western landscapes made by this group. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Moran)

Soon after achieving my goal of capturing the majestic beauty of the Maroon Bells at the peak of fall color, and a stunning reflection...

Soon after achieving my goal of capturing the majestic beauty of the Maroon Bells at the peak of fall color, and a stunning reflection in Maroon Lake, I turned my attention to the Grand Tetons and the beautiful, classic Oxbow of the Snake River with Mount Moran (named after explorer and artist Thomas Moran). For about 10 years now, I have made the annual pilgrimage to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and spent many, many weeks enjoying the scenic beauty, amazing wildlife, and crisp fall mornings while photographing and hiking in and around the Tetons. In 2014, the combination of snow covered peaks, brilliant gold aspens, pleasing clouds, and relatively calm water combined so I could capture on 11x14 film this scenic wonder of Sublime Beauty. Mother Nature is fickle, and in the years since, though continuing to revisit this location, I have never been blessed with such a wonderful combination of conditions. This makes me appreciate this photograph all the more for its rarity.