Lake George | Hudson River School

The Adirondacks: Lake George

Lake George, also known as “The Queen of American Lakes,” is located in the upper region of the Great Appalachian Valley along the historical natural path between the valley of the Hudson River and the St. Lawrence River.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Lake George was a premier destination for America’s most well-known landscape painters, including John Frederick Kensett, Martin Johnson Heade, John William Casilear, and Alfred Thompson Bricher. Kensett visited Lake George on numerous occasions and made many studies of the area. He often compressed or omitted certain details of the topography to create harmonious compositions, stress particular characteristics of the area, or elicit certain moods. His paintings of Lake George are in the world’s most important museum collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.

The astounding 32-mile long lake, fed by enormous underground springs, includes 109 miles of shoreline, over three hundred islands, and covers an area of over 44 square miles. The lake, 320 feet above sea level, varies in width from one to three miles, and has a maximum depth of 195 feet. The lake drains into Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River Basin at the southeast of the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York. The first European visitor to the area, Samuel de Champlain, noted the lake in 1609. In 1646, the French-Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues, the first European to explore the lake, named it Lac du Saint-Sacrement, and its exit stream, La Chute (The Fall).

The Lake George area had a prominent role in many important battles of the French and Indian Wars as well as the American Revolution, but prior to that it was an important artery of travel for the American Indians. For them it formed the connecting link in the main water route between the Hudson River and Lake Champlain. The Iroquois, who were continually at war with the Algonquin of the north, appropriately called it “Andiatarocte,” or “Where the Lake Is Shut In.” Lake George was a crucial military location in the eighteenth century, and was also noted for its beauty.

On August 28, 1755, William Johnson led British colonial forces to occupy the area in the French and Indian War. He renamed the body of water Lake George in honor of King George II, and built a fortification, Fort William Henry, at its southern end. On September 8, 1755 the Battle of Lake George was fought between British and French forces. In September, the French began building Fort Carillon, later renamed Fort Ticonderoga, at the point where La Chute enters Lake Champlain. These fortifications controlled the water route between Canada and colonial New York. Lake George’s key position on the Montreal–New York water route made possession of the forts at either end, particularly Fort Ticonderoga, strategically crucial during the American Revolution.

Later in the war, British General John Burgoyne’s decision to bypass the easy water route to the Hudson River that Lake George offered and, instead, attempt to reach the Hudson though the marshes and forests at the southern end of Lake Champlain, led to the British defeat at Saratoga.

On May 31, 1791, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to his daughter:

Lake George is, without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever saw; formed by a contour of mountains into a basin thirty-five miles long, and from two to four miles broad, finely interspersed with islands, its water limpid as crystal and the mountain sides covered with rich groves of thuja [arborvitae], silver fir, white pine, aspen and paper birch down to the water edge, here and there precipices of rock to checker the scene and save it from monotony. An abundance of speckled trout, salmon trout, bass, and other fish with which it is stocked, have added to our other amusements the sport of taking them.

James Fenimore Cooper featured Lake George in his seminal Last of the Mohicans (1826), naming it the Horican, after a Native American tribe which may have lived there.

John Frederick Kensett (1816–1872) Lake George, ca. 1860
Oil on canvas, 22 x 34 inches (approx.)
Collection Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain, INV. Nr. 612, 1980.78


Hermann Fuechsel (1833–1915) Lake George, 1875
Oil on canvas, 10 x 20⅛ inches
Signed and dated lower right: H. FÜECHSEL. / N.Y. 1875; inscribed on verso: “Lake George” by Hermann Fuchsel[sic] — / 82 Fifth Avenue New York.

Image courtesy of Questroyal Fine Art, LLC