The Hudson River school: the United States’ first art School
Sanford Robinson Gifford (10 July 1823 – 29 August 1880) was a member of the 19th-century American Hudson River School and, as did members of this school, he painted landscapes and seascapes. Gifford first studied art under the direction of John R. Smith, a water-colorist and drawing-master. He painted the scenery that surrounded him: the North-East coast of the United States, but he also travelled and studied abroad, as did many Hudson River school artists. They were in search of scenery. Gifford first travelled to Europe in 1855 and met Albert Bierstadt and Worthington Whittredged. Gifford was in fact close to several members of the Hudson River school, the United States’ first art school.[i]
Most members of the Hudson River school travelled not only to Europe but also to various parts of the United States. Gifford travelled to Vermont in 1858 and spent the summer of 1867 on the New Jersey coast, at Sandy Hooke and Long Branch and, in 1870, he went to the Rocky Mountains accompanied by Worthington Whittredged and John Frederick Kensett, the most prominent member of the Hudson River school.
Meanwhile, however, in 1668, Gifford had returned to Europe and travelled to the Middle East and to Egypt.
When he travelled, Gifford made sketches and, on his return to his studio, in New York, he would enlarge his sketches into small oil paintings and then enlarge his small oil paintings into large paintings, the definitive work. Therefore, the date given a painting does not necessarily correspond to the date the sketch was made.
He died of malaria, in New York, at the age of 57.
The paintings of members of the Hudson River school are associated with luminism. Luminism resembles Impressionism in that artists attempt to capture the effect of light on landscapes and seascapes. Light molds an object. However, American luminism is much less suggestive than French Impressionism. The artworks of French Impressionists are at times blurred to the point of abstraction.
According to Wikipedia,
luminism is characterized by attention to detail and the hiding of brushstrokes, while impressionism is characterized by lack of detail and an emphasis on brushstrokes. Luminism preceded impressionism, and the artists who painted in a luminist style were in no way influenced by impressionism.
As for the Encyclopædia Britannica, it describes luminism as a “late 19th-century painting style emphasizing a unique clarity of light. It was characteristic of the works of a group of independent American painters who were directly influenced by the Hudson River school of painting. The term, however, was not coined until 1954 by John Baur, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.”[ii]
In Britannica‘s definition, the operative words are “a unique clarity of light.” However, members of the Hudson River were never a movement and, if they were “luminists,” it was sans le savoir, unawares. The term did not exist in the 19th century.[iii]
The Edgar Degas (19 July 1834 – 27 September 1917) we know depicted ballet dancers. In fact, for many of us, dancers were Degas’ only subject matter, which is understandable as these were the works we were shown. Yet, he also depicted horse racing and café scenes. Moreover, he was a fine portrait artist, a skill he perfected during a three-year stay with relatives in Naples, Italy, beginning in 1856. At that time, he was also considering a career as historical painter and produced a few historical paintings.
Degas’ main subject was indeed the human figure, especially women. “Ballet dancers and women washing themselves would preoccupy him throughout his career.”[i] So would milliners, laundresses, cabaret singers and prostitutes. As Degas claimed, he was a “realist” and, earlier in his career, a social realist, as in literary realism.
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica,
“As part of his own process of engaging with modernity, he [Degas] self-consciously aligned himself with Realist novelists such as Émile Zola and Edmond and Jules Goncourt, drafting illustrations for their novels and briefly adopting a similar social descriptiveness.”[ii]
Yet, Degas would later cast away “the certainties of a state-controlled, historical culture for an art of individual crisis, even approaching the nihilism of the following generation.”[iii] Moreover, the Dreyfus Affair would elecit, on Degas’ part, a “violently anti-Semitic response” that estranged former friends.[iv]
Degas: Seascapes, Landscapes & Valery-sur-Somme
Early Outdoors Scenes
But let us return to our subject matter: the eclectic Degas. We know that he made fun of en plein air (outdoors) painters, but the above paintings prove that he devoted at least one season, 1869, to “plein-air” art. Moreover, Degas’ depictions of horses and horse racing scenes are outdoors works. Finally, Degas left seascapes, landscapes, and depictions of Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, shown below. The above paintings, two pastels, are early works depicting beaches. These are therefore very luminous works. Moreover, they could be classified as Impressionist works. The colours are muted, varied, and sea and sky nearly blend in “Beach with Sailing Boats.” In the upper part of these pastel seascapes, Degas has used a darker colour. He therefore presents a painterly rather than linear sky scape.
In later “plein-air” works, his subject matter changed and his works darkened accordingly. Yet, he did not change his selection of colours to a significant extent. In “Plowed Field,” shown below, as one looks up, one sees little beads: blue, mauve, dark green and silver. They illuminate his art. Here the sky is not a principal subject matter. Trees dominate “Plowed Field,” a mostly linear pastel. “Plowed Field” is reminiscent of the nineteenth-century Russian lyrical landscapes of artist Alexei Savrasov (24 May 1830 – 8 October 1897). It is also reminiscent of the “mood” landscapes created by Isaac Levitan (30 August 1860 – 4 August 1900; aged 39).
From the point of view of composition, “Plowed Field,” now above, is a gem. It features a lovely curve that begins with the largest tree, on the right side of the artwork. Degas usually placed his subject matter relatively far from the middle of his artwork. We also see curves running in opposite directions. However, we have a dark main line directly beneath the trees. I love the effect created by the very pale, silvery, beads. There is considerable movement in this painting. It is as though the trees were performing pirouettes.
Degas also depicted the houses of Saint-Valerie-sur-Somme, a small community in northern France. In “Houses at the Foot of a Cliff (Saint-Valery-sur-Somme),” we have an oil painting featuring a coloured sky, but the main compositional elements are three lines: 1) a slightly broken diagonal line and, underneath, 2) a horizontal line, traced above the blue-roofed cottages and running the entire width of the canvas, beneath the cottages, 3) another diagonal line running in a direction opposite the upper diagonal line. We do not see a vanishing point, but almost. There is movement is this painting, as in “Plowed Field.”
“Rue Quesnoy” also features lines: two narrowing vertical lines, flanked by houses and a broken and playful third line, a horizontal line consisting of trees slightly above the horizon. Again, we sense movement in Degas’ work. He guides and pleases the eye.
But our masterpiece remains a female figure, a pastel inserted at the bottom of this post, a dancer adjusting her slipper: lines against a flat-coloured background, an example of Japonism, except that he shows a shadow. In this work, less is more.
“Artists were especially affected by the lack of perspective and shadow, the flat areas of strong color, and the compositional freedom gained by placing the subject off-centre, mostly with a low diagonal axis to the background.” (See Japonism, Wikipedia)
“The prints were collected by such painters as Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and other artists. The clarity of line, spaciousness of composition, and boldness and flatness of colour and light in Japanese prints had a direct impact on their work and on that of their followers.”[v]
Once known mainly for his depiction of ballet dancers, Degas’ choice of subject matter was much broader and always appealing, even when his representation of the human form, the female figure, did not embellish his models. His art is figurative, not abstract, but his strength lies, to a large extent, in the structure of his art, or in the lines behind the figures. A successful artist during his own lifetime, he was admired by artists who followed him, including Picasso, and he remains not only a favourite but also a model, which makes him a classic.
I was just browsing the internet in search of sites that feature artists who have guided my own short career as an artist. Anna Syperek gave me the encouragement that led me to take paintings to Lygthesome Gallery. However, one day, I decided to show some of my paintings to Dr Price, my ophthalmologist and an artist. Well, he also made several helpful comments.
I like to paint big, rhythmic things. I like bold colours – like that poem, like the landscape itself – something that people can’t walk past. I don’t want them to be able to walk past.
He lengthens the days, the weeks, the months…
Paul has a profession. It must be difficult for him to find the time and energy to paint. Yet very few artists are more devoted to their art than Paul, and very few are more productive. Dr Price lengthens the days, weeks and months to produce yet another beautiful Canadian painting.
Back to animism
However, although he seems to have been influenced by the Group of Seven, Paul Price does not paint Algonkian landscapes. He paintsNewfoundland and Labrador, but not Newfoundland and Labrador as they are. Paul paints Newfoundland and Labrador as he sees them. His landscapes and seascapes are conditioned by a personal vision visited upon landscapes and seascapes. His paintings are not simply representational, but re-presentational, as I used the term in my recent blog on “The Velveteen Rabbit and animism.” Paul’s paintings reveal a creative mind.
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In Antigonish, Paul lived in a very large old house, perhaps a former inn or auberge, located by the ocean. I never walked down to the beach side of his property, but I would presume, a sailboat was at the ready. But he came to my “dinners,” and I remember his pouring me a glass of wine so I would sit at my piano and play my very own “songs without words.”
Paul’s biography is on websites that feature painting: oils, watercolours, prints, etc. from his abundant collection. Paul is very eclectic. In fact, he does not always paint landscapes. Moreover, the works of other artists are exhibited in his Gallery.
I may never see Paul again, but I wish to salute a gentleman who has already stretched his life beyond the years afforded him by destiny.