The painters of the Hudson River School were grandiose, romantic, dramatic and brilliantly colorful. They also helped define the nation, championing wild America to a population that often saw nature as a thing to be feared and tamed, not celebrated.
They made art with a wow factor, which is why it’s surprising that there are so few children’s books about this country’s first art movement or its painters. A book by writer and illustrator Hudson Talbott, “Picturing America: Thomas Cole and the Birth of American Art,” helps to fix that.
When Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, took his first voyage up the Hudson in 1825, Talbott writes, “he passed the wild mountain ranges and vast forests along the river’s edge” and “ realized why he was on this journey. He was going there to paint America.”
Talbott, who is based in the Hudson Valley, has also written and illustrated “River of Dreams,” a picture book about his beloved Hudson, among other children’s books. (Proceeds from the sale of this book will benefit the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, N.Y.)
“Picturing America” traces Cole’s life and his interest in art and nature, starting with his birth in 1801 in England, where his family witnesses the ways in which the nascent Industrial Revolution despoils English cities. Talbot also writes in some detail about Cole’s early years in America, where he roams the countryside, trying to make a living as a traveling artist.
Eventually, the artist makes his way to New York City and takes that fateful steamer trip up the Hudson River. Talbott illustrates the narrative with beautiful watercolors, imagining the landscape Cole would have seen, and he includes reproductions of more than a dozen of Cole’s works, including images of the Catskill Mountain House, a famous hotel; Kaaterskill Clove, a deep gorge popular with artists; and his two allegorical series, “The Course of Empire” and “The Voyage of Life.”
“The Course of Empire,” depicting the rise and fall of a civilization like the Roman Empire, was created after his years-long study of art in Europe and contained a warning that urbanization and corruption could lead to the downfall of the United States.
In “The Voyage of Life,” Cole “wanted to show what it meant to be human.” Cole depicts childhood, youth, manhood and old age. The darkest vision was of manhood. Cole’s middle-aged figure “is lost in a storm with a broken rudder. Alone in the world, he prays for help.”
Both series have grim messages, certainly. But Talbott ends on an upbeat note. Thanks in part to Cole’s influence, by “the 1870s large areas of pristine wilderness were being preserved from destruction,” Talbott writes. “They eventually became our national parks.”
And today, the “viewshed” from Olana, the home of Cole’s star pupil, Frederic Church, preserves one of the green vistas that extend along the Hudson northward into the Catskill Mountains. The Hudson River School Art Trail offers guided hikes to experience vistas, largely intact today, that painters such as Cole, Church, Jasper Cropsey and Asher Durand captured so well.
Debra Bruno is a writer in the District. She can be found on Twitter, @brunodebbie.
By Hudson Talbott. 32 pp. $17.99.