About forty miles from New York you enter upon the Highlands, as a series of mountains which then flank the river on both sides, are called. The beauty of this scenery can only be conceived when it is seen. One might fancy that these capricious masses, with all their countless varieties of light and shade, were thrown together to show how passing lovely ricks, and woods, and water could be. Sometimes a lofty peak shoots suddenly up into the heavens shewing [sic] in bold relief against the sky: and then a deep ravine sinks in solemn shadow, and draws the imagination into its leafy recesses. For several miles, the river appears to form a succession of lakes; you are often enclosed on all sides by rocks rising directly from the very edge of the stream, and then you turn a point, the river widens, and again woods, lawns, villages are reflected on its bosom.
—Frances Trollope, 1832
I am almost afraid to tell you of its beauties and advantages. It is just such a place as in England could not be purchased for double the number of pounds sterling. Its “capabilities,” as the landscape gardeners would say, are unequalled. There is every variety of surface, plain, hill, dale, glens, running streams and fine forest, and every variety of different prospect; the Fishkill Mountains towards the south and the Catskills towards the north: the Hudson with its varieties of river craft, steamboats of all kinds, sloops, etc., constantly showing a varied scene.
—Samuel Morse, on purchasing his one-hundred-acre estate in the Hudson River Valley, two miles from Poughkeepsie
Numerous modern artists are distinguished by a feeling for nature which has made landscape, instead of mere imitation, a vehicle of great moral impressions…And where should this kind of painting advance if not in this country?…No blind authority here checks the hand or chills the heart of the artist. It is only requisite to possess the technical skill, to be versed in the alphabet of painting, and then under the inspiration of a genuine love of nature ‘to hold communion with her visible forms’ in order to achieve signal triumphs in landscape, from the varied material so lavishly displayed in our mountains, rivers, lakes, and forests—each possessing characteristic traits of beauty, and all cast in a grander mould and wearing a fresher aspect than in any other civilized land.
—Henry T. Tuckerman, art critic, 1847
Must I tell you that neither the Alps nor the Appenines, no, nor even Aetna itself, have dimmed, in my eyes, the beauty of our own Catskills? It seems to me that I look on American scenery, if it were possible, with increased pleasure. It has its own peculiar charm – a something not found elsewhere. I am content with nature: would that I were with art!
We pursued our way to the lake…I pointed out a view that I once painted: which picture, I believe, was the first ever painted of the lake that will be hereafter the subject of a thousand pencils…Before us spread the virgin waters which the prow of the sketcher had never yet curled, enfolded by the green woods, whose venerable masses had never figured in the annuals, and overlooked by the stern mountain peaks, never beheld by Claude or Salvator, not subjected to the canvas by the innumerable dabblers in paint of all past time. The painter of American scenery has, indeed, privileges superior to any other. All nature here is new to art.
—Thomas Cole, July 1836, on painting Lake with Dead Trees (1825)
The Hudson, for natural magnificence is unsurpassed. What can be more beautiful than the lake-like expanses of Tapaan [sic] and Haverstraw as seen from the rich orchards of the surrounding hills? What can be more imposing than the precipitous Highlands, whose dark foundations have been rent to make a passage for the mighty river? The lofty Catskills stand afar off; [and] recede like steps by which we may ascent to a great temple…The Rhine has its castled crags [but] the Hudson has its wooded mountains…and an unbounded capacity for improvement by art.
—Thomas Cole, lecture published in Northern Light (1841)
To walk with nature as a poet is the necessary condition of a perfect artist.
How I have walked… day after day, and all alone, to see if there was not something among the old things which was new!
I do not conceive that compositions are so liable to be failures as you suppose,…the finest pictures which have been produced, both Historical and Landscape, have been compositions…If the imagination is shackled, and nothing is described but what we see, seldom will anything truly great be produced wither in Painting or Poetry… a departure from nature is not a necessary consequence in the painting of compositions: on the contrary, the most lovely and perfect parts of Nature may be brought together, and combined in a while that shall surpass in beauty and effect any picture painted from a single view.
—Thomas Cole, in a letter to his patron Robert Gilmor, Jr., dated December 25, 1826
William Cullen Bryant
Thine eyes shall see the light of distant skies:
Yet, Cole! thy heart shall bear to Europe’s strand
A living image of thy native land,
Such as on thy own glorious canvass lies.
Lone lakes-savannahs where the bison roves-
Rocks rich with summer garlands–solemn streams-
Skies, where the desert eagle wheels and screams-
Spring bloom and autumn blaze of boundless groves.
Fair scenes shall greet thee where thou goest–fair,
But different-every where the trace of men,
Paths, homes, graves, ruins, from the lowest glen
To where life shrinks from the fierce Alpine air.
Gaze on them, till the tears shall dim thy sight,
But keep that earlier, wilder image bright.
—William Cullen Bryant, “To an American Painter Departing for Europe,” 1829, written upon the occasion of Thomas Cole’s departure to Europe
The magnificent beauty of the natural world is a manifestation of the mysterious natural laws that will be forever obscured from us.
Truly all is remarkable and a wellspring of amazement and wonder. Man is so fortunate to dwell in this American Garden of Eden.
Christ is one with His creatures and so man must treat his fellow creatures as Christ would. The continual slaughter of native species must be halted before all is lost.
If your subject be a tree, observe particularly wherein it differs from those of other species: in the first place, the termination of its foliage, best seen when relieved on the sky, whether pointed or rounded, dropping or springing upward, and so forth; next, mark the character of its trunk and branches, the manner in which the latter shoot off from the parent stem, their direction, curves, and angles. Every kind of tree has its traits of individuality—some kinds assimilate, others differ widely—with careful attention, these peculiarities are easily learned, and so, in a greater or lesser degree, with all other objects.
—Asher B. Durand, “Letters on Landscape Painting,” The Crayon (1855)
Let me earnestly recommend…one studio which you may freely enter and receive in liberal measure the most sure and safe instruction…the Studio of Nature.
—Asher B. Durand, “Letters on Landscape Painting,” The Crayon (1855)
The highest art is where has been most perfectly breathed the sentiment of humanity…Some persons suppose that landscape has no power of communicating human sentiment. But this is a great mistake. The civilized landscape peculiarly can: and therefore I love it more and think it more worthy of reproduction than that which is savage and untamed. It is more significant. Every act of man, every thing of labor, effort, suffering, want, anxiety, necessity, love, marks itself wherever it has been.
—George Inness, “A Painter on Painting,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (February 1878)