Gorgeous Gorges

Collectors from the West Coast to Europe are driving demand for the majestic landscapes of the Hudson River School&#151and driving up prices in the process.

Peace in the wilderness—this is what Frederic Edwin Church had in mind when he painted Mount Newport on Maine’s Mount Desert Island in the early 1850s. Today the image of the rocky promontory rising dramatically from rolling green hills is a symbol as much of fierce activity as of a tranquil paradise. Collectors bid the work up to $4.2 million, roughly twice expectations, at a recent sale at Christie’s New York.


Frederic Church’s Niagara Falls from the American Side, 1867, will be at London’s Tate Britain as part of “American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880.”
© The National Gallery of Scotland

Though impressive, the price was not a record for the Hudson River School painter. In October 1979 his 1861 painting Icebergs broke the million-dollar barrier for an American artwork sold at auction, commanding $2.5 million at Sotheby’s Parke Bernet. And in May 1989 Church’s Home by the Lake(1852), a view of the Catskill Mountains, went for $8.25 million, still the record for a 19th-century American landscape painting. “If a great work by a top Hudson River School painter would come on the market now,” says Peter Rathbone, director of American drawings, paintings, and sculpture at Sotheby’s New York, “it would certainly bring over $10 million.”

But mirroring the peaks and valleys they so eloquently portrayed, the fortunes in the marketplace of the Hudson River painters—such artists as Thomas Cole, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Fitz Hugh Lane, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, Martin Johnson Heade, Francis Augustus Silva, Worthington Whittredge, and Jasper Francis Cropsey—have been up and down. As members of the first native school of American art, active from 1825 to 1870, they sought to reveal God in nature, presenting the untainted landscape of the New World as spiritual sanctuary. The painters’ sublime views of rocky gorges, crystalline lakes, impetuous rivers, and pristine forests were initially snapped up by wealthy collectors who yearned for an authentic national art. International recognition came for the Hudson River School when Church and Bierstadt were given awards for their submissions to the Paris Universal Exposition in 1867, putting them on an equal footing with the Europeans. But by the end of the 19th century, American painters had fallen out of favor. “They were seen as primitive cousins of the exciting, radical artists in Europe, artists like the French Impressionists,” says Martha Fleischman of New York’s Kennedy Galleries. The Hudson River School’s status with collectors, who, according to New York private dealer Debra Force, were by then buying the works mostly to complement their American furniture, remained unchanged until the latter part of the 20th century. “Many people at the time considered the work to be schmaltzy—far too dramatic, oversimplified, and idealistic,” says Gavin Spanierman, director of New York’s Spanierman Gallery.

That changed in the mid-1970s, when art historians, inspired by the nation’s bicentennial, shifted their focus to American subjects. “There was an explosion in scholarship,” notes Eric Widing, head of American art at Christie’s, who mentions the existence of only two books on the Hudson River School—one by Metropolitan Museum of Art curator John K. Howat, the other by scholar James Thomas Flexner—prior to the period. “In the last 25 years,” adds Manhattan dealer Richard York, “the number of monographs that have come out solely on the Hudson River painters exceeds everything that was published about pre-1950 American art before then.” Exhibitions, too, have proliferated, including such seminal shows as “American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850–1875” at Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art in 1980; “American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School” at New York’s Metropolitan in 1987; “Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise,” co-organized by the Brooklyn Museum and the National Gallery in 1991; and “Martin Johnson Heade: An American Original,” put together by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 2000.

It did not take long for the interest to be reflected in the marketplace. “The Hudson River School began to take off in the 1970s, and it hasn’t looked back since,” says Fred Hill of New York’s Berry-Hill Galleries, which is showing 40 works by Silva, in what Hill calls the first exhibition devoted to the artist, through June 28. According to many specialists in the field, 19th-century American art in general has been gaining strength over the last few decades. Buyers took particular notice, says private dealer Martha Parrish, when prices for European paintings from around the same period skyrocketed in the 1980s. Now, says Karl Gabosh, senior consultant of American art at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg, “people are suddenly beginning to realize there isn’t an unlimited supply of American pictures.” In fact, the demand for Hudson River School paintings is significantly greater than the amount of material that comes on the market, particularly for first-rate paintings, most of which are in, or are earmarked by their owners to go to, public institutions. “I have almost a waiting list for top-notch pictures,” reports York.

“The marketplace will spend what it takes to get high-quality examples of artists of the Hudson River School and those subjects associated with it,” says Gabosh, pointing, as an example, to his auction house’s sale, in May 1999, of a small painting by Gifford, Kauterskill Clove, In the Catskills. Described by one 19th-century critic as “a mountain gorge, resplendent with the yellow sunlight of the declining day,” it belongs to a series of sketches and studies for an 1862 masterwork by Gifford in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Estimated to sell for between $20,000 and $30,000, the 10-by-8-inch painting commanded $475,500. “In 1990 this same picture probably would have brought $80,000 to $120,000,” says Gabosh. Similarly, even the smallest canvases by Cropsey, prized for his detailed panoramas of autumn foliage, sell today for around $300,000, according to Vivian Bullaudy, director of Hollis Taggart in New York, who reports keen interest in a group of Hudson River School pictures recently acquired by the gallery. “Only three to five years ago,” Bullaudy says, “Cropsey was considered affordable.”

The dearth of material has, in turn, pushed up prices for strong examples by lesser-known artists, including Herman Herzog, Paul Weber, Samuel Colman, Arthur Parton, and William and James Hart, to name a few. In the past a number of these artists’ works were readily available, notes Colleen Kollar Zorn, of Seattle’s A. J. Kollar Fine Paintings. “Today they are more difficult to find,” she says. “And there are often multiple buyers.” At a Sotheby’s sale last November, A View from Mount Desert(1860–61), for instance, by William Stanley Haseltine, a contemporary of the second generation of Hudson River School painters, brought a record $748,250. It was expected to fetch $250,000 to $350,000.

Helping to drive up the prices, says Force, is a group of new collectors emerging on the West Coast, many of whom are transplanted Easterners in the computer industry. While the vast majority of buyers are Americans, there has been a hint of interest from British and German collectors. Experts are hoping that “American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820–1880,” the most ambitious exhibition of the Hudson River artists ever staged outside the U.S., on view at Tate Britain through May 19, will increase understanding of and interest in the 19th-century American school. To date, the only major European collector of the works has been
the late Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, who began acquiring the landscapes in the 1970s, taking advantage of what was then an untapped market.

While a good number of the Hudson River artists—Cole, Church, Cropsey, Bierstadt—took up residence in the Catskills and surrounding areas, many of the artists also spent time far afield—in Europe, South America, and out West. “The Hudson River School was a pejorative term coined by the generation of artists that followed, artists who wanted their predecessors’ work to seem provincial,” explains Christie’s Widing.

Though pictures of foreign locales by the Hudson River painters always had a collecting audience, “now people are becoming more open-minded about subject matter in seeking quality,” says Fleischman, citing as an example the rapidly increasing interest in Venetian images by Moran, who has traditionally been sought after for his defining paintings of Yellowstone. “People used to dismiss such works as un-American,” she says. Twenty to 30 years ago, collectors were generally much more rigid in the kind of Hudson River School paintings they pursued, agrees Warren Adelson, of New York’s Adelson Galleries. “A Gifford painting of Egypt is much easier to sell now,” he says. Last November, a Heade painting of a hummingbird and orchid from the artist’s “Gems of Brazil” series, which graced the cover of Christie’s sale catalogue, climbed above its estimate to $1.3 million.

Nonetheless, notes New York dealer Vance Jordan, “everyone wants the classic Luminist image.” Lane’s depiction of the clipper ship Golden Rule, for example, with its soft, rose-hued light glowing on the horizon, and Silva’s Evening in Gloucester Harbor(1871), illuminated by a fiery red sky, both achieved auction records for the artists at Christie’s in the last few years. The former brought $3.96 million, the latter, $992,500 (nearly nine times the estimate). Such preoccupation with the effects of light characterized many paintings of the Hudson River School.

It is no surprise, say dealers and auction-house specialists, that Hudson River School paintings appeal to today’s collectors. Views of bald mountain peaks, rocky shorelines, and grassy hillsides are understandably attractive to a public increasingly conscious of its nation’s shrinking natural resources. “It’s the same reason why the Sierra Club is going strong and why hordes of people visit our national parks,” says Widing. “There used to be this idea that if it wasn’t gut-wrenching, it wasn’t good art. Now,” says Spanierman, “people want to take refuge in the beautiful.”

Deidre Stein Greben is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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