Craig White's Literature Courses

Historical Backgrounds

Hudson River School
of American Romantic Painters

(mid to late 1800s)

Hudson River, New York State
Both our earliest American Romantic writers
--Washington Irving & James Fenimore Cooper--
were natives of New York State

Instructor's note: Romanticism was an international movement in the 1700s-1800s, and Romantic literature co-evolved with Romantic musical and visual art. In North America and the United States, the primary expression of Romantic Painting was by the Hudson River School, primarily associated with the painter Thomas Cole (1801-48), who was born in England but immigrated to the USA in 1818. This school he founded and its followers developed their style in both North and South America throughout the 1800s.

Purpose of survey: Distinguish Enlightenment or Neo-Classical styles of the 1700s with Romantic styles of the 1800s. (Style may include subject matter as well as forms or techniques)

Relevance to upcoming readings in American Renaissance or American Romantic Literature: The popularity of Cole's work and style emerged in the same time-period as the writings of Washington Irving (Rip Van Winkle, Legend of Sleepy Hollow) and James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans), also of New York State, whose fiction depicted the same grand natural landscapes in writing as Cole did in visual art.

Discussion questions: Identify the differences between Enlightenment and Romantic painting in . . .

Subject (types or scales of human figures and settings)

Form (color, line, shadow, depth)

(The styles and subjects of the two periods may overlap. As usual with the study of periods or styles, the point is not to put the work in a box but to identify "family traits" or resemblances that typify a moment in time but may also cross generations.)

Thomas Cole (1801-48)

Discussion questions:

1. How do the Enlightenment & Romantic works differ in style or form? (e.g., color, texture, line, scale)

2. How do the Enlightenment & Romantic works differ in content or subject matter? (human society, nature)

3. Where do you see both Enlightenment & Romantic styles or subjects in the same work?

Examples of Enlightenment / Neo-Classical / Age of Reason painting

(late 1600s-1700s)

Poussin (1594-1665), Et in Arcadia Ego (1630s)

John Singleton Copley (1728-1815), Paul Revere (1770)


John Singleton Copley (1728-1815), Death of Major Pierson (1781)
(Battle of Jersey)

John James Audubon, White Gyrfalcons (1830s?)

Examples of Hudson River School paintings in Romantic style 


Thomas Cole, The Garden of Eden (1828)

Thomas Cole, Romantic Landscape with Ruined Tower (1830s)

Thomas Cole, scene from The Last of the Mohicans

Cole, The Hunter's Return (1845)

Cole, from The Course of Empire
(series of five paintings, 1833-36)

Cole, Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830)

Paintings by other artists associated with the Hudson River School

Asher Durand (1796-1886), Kindred Spirits (1849)

(depicting Thomas Cole and poet William Cullen Bryant)

Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904),The Marshes at Rhode Island (1866)

Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), Orchids and Hummingbirds (late 1800s)

George Inness (1825-94), The Lackawanna Valley (1855)

Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900), The Icebergs (1861)

Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900), Twilight in the Wilderness (1860)

Frederick Edwin Church, Aurora Borealis (1865)