Church, Frederic Edwin. American, 1826-1900. Autumn in North America, c. 1856. Oil on board. Gift of Matthew Vassar.

Today’s post comes from Julie MacDonald, Class of 2012 and Art Center Student Docent.

During the autumnal season, our local landscape takes on the added dimension of color to enhance its beauty, and what better time to look at a work of Hudson River School artists on view here at the Art Center. Autumn in North America is wonderful piece to exemplify the integral role of landscape in Hudson River School painting.

The small scale of the work encourages the viewer to step close and enter into the world created by Frederic Church. The pictorial space is bounded and confined by the colorful foliage of autumnal trees, except in the foreground where a sparse path serves as a stepping-stone for the viewer to proceed into the composition. Following the path, we find a collection of cows crossing a rustic bridge through the wilderness, though there is no human guide to direct or manipulate their actions. This absence of humanity echoes throughout many works of the Hudson River School, a direct statement against the impact of industrialization in the natural world.

Nature served as both inspiration and philosophical base for many artists of this time period. Painted in 1856, a tumultuous time in American history, Church and his contemporaries were searching for an artistic vision representative of their young country, and independent of the European art world. Where European art was based in historical prestige and monumental architecture, Americans needed to look elsewhere. The Hudson River School found this inspiration in the vast wildness of the American landscape. The landscape was untouched by the industrial hand that was already beginning to blacken European skies with pollution. There is a sense of this reverence for the landscape in Autumn in North America. Warm sunlight emanates from the center of the composition and bathes the entire work in a welcoming glow that illuminates individual leaves, as well as enhances the fantastic array of colors found in the foliage. The river that divides the composition in half takes a turn out of view, intriguing the viewer as to what may lay beyond in such wild and unchartered lands.

However, the landscape did not solely serve as inspiration for the composition of works. Artists like Church used their innovative paintings of the natural world to serve a higher philosophical purpose. Instead of exactly representing every aspect of the picturesque setting, Church was known to combine locations, invent new elements, and manipulate his emphasis to serve a higher artistic purpose. Autumn in North America is an idealized setting, an idyllic composition that is both dynamic and undeniably beautiful, yet is it truly representative of the entirety of North America? Could you imagine this scene taking place in the antebellum south? The scene is decidedly Northeastern, and yet Church has generalized the title to include all of North America. He is using nature to create the message of his ideal country- free from industrialization and slavery. A strong statement dispensed through landscape painting would have been unheard of in European art circles, yet through the unique voice of Frederic Church and the monumental quality of the American landscape, such historicizing biases are no longer restrictive–  a break from tradition which contributed to the development of American modernism.

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