The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 assured the Hudson River a vital role in the evolution of what would become New York City into the nation’s industrial and financial powerhouse—its “Empire City.” The same year artist Thomas Cole was “discovered”, setting in motion a tradition of painting that transformed American art, much as the Erie Canal was rapidly transforming the landscape. For the most part, artists ignored the industrialization of the region; Cole was a strong proponent of the British traditions of the sublime and the beautiful, and his melding of these romantic ideals to direct observation of nature became the mainstay of American landscape in the mid-19th century. The ideal expressed in thousands of Hudson River School canvases from the 1820s through the turn of the century constituted a moving vocabulary many artists clung to, even decades after the reality of the landscape had changed. It was not until the first decade of the 20th century, as artists like Robert Henri and John Sloan turned their attention to the urban scene, that American art shifted its focus from bucolic landscapes to the cities, the towns, and the crowds, especially the raucous urban scene of Manhattan—by then the nation’s most important metropolis.
The movement away from painting the land to painting the life on the street is often seen as a clean break with the depiction of the landscape, and with landscape painting generally as a mainstay of American art in the face of European Modernism. However, artists continued to paint the Hudson River, as well as its tributaries, the Harlem and East rivers, and the great harbor of New York City into which they flowed. What was different was their approach. Having jettisoned the romantic ideals of their forebears, artists like Henri and Sloan, and later, Georgia O’Keeffe, George Ault, Edward Hopper, and Preston Dickinson, celebrated the changing way of life along the city’s waterfront. As the century progressed, they did so with sharper focus and with ideals borrowed from the Machine Age. Instead of majestic mountain ranges, their subjects were the arching bridges, swinging cranes, and streamlined ocean liners resting in the harbor. Artists took the elements of the Sublime, combined them with Modernism’s interest in structure and form, and applied them to the manmade industrial one—thereby creating a new visual vocabulary for the 20th century ─ the Industrial Sublime.
Industrial Sublime, the exhibition, takes as its focus the shift in both style and sensibility during the years 1900 to 1940, and explores the development of a new mode of landscape painting and pictorial ideals suited to America’s role as a global industrial power.
Museums lending works to the exhibition of more than 60 paintings include The Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; The Art Institute of Chicago; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute; High Museum of Art; Museum of Art, Ft. Lauderdale; Georgia Museum of Art; The New-York Historical Society; Museum of the City of New York; Newark Museum; the Phillips Collection; Flint Institute of Arts; Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Norton Museum of Art.
The exhibition, accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, is co-curated by Kirsten Jensen, Curator, Hudson River Museum and Bartholomew F. Bland, Director of Curatorial Affairs, Hudson River Museum. Additional essayists for the publication include Wendy Greenhouse, co-author of Chicago Modern 1893-1945: Pursuit of the New, Katherine E. Manthorne, Professor of Modern Art of the Americas, Graduate Center, City University of New York, and Ellen E. Roberts, Harold and Anne Berkley Smith Curator of American Art, Norton Museum of Art.
Industrial Sublime: Modernism and the Transformation of New York’s Rivers, 1900-1940 is the fifth exhibition in the Hudson River Museum series The Visitor In the Landscape.
The exhibition will travel to the Norton Museum of Art, March 20 – June 22, 2014.