I was able to take an early look at the exhibition Walks with Artists: The Hudson Valley and Beyond at the Hudson River Museum, and the subject intrigued me — I wanted to learn more about the different ways that our natural surroundings can inspire. Ted Barrow, the Hudson River Museum’s new Assistant Curator, spoke about the exhibition that day, here is more from him as he explores the subject.
Walks With Artists
by Ted Barrow
It may sound trite, but it is true: through art, we see the world with new eyes.
In early October, the Hudson River Museum opened “Walks With Artists: The Hudson River Valley and Beyond.” As the newly-hired Assistant Curator to Chief Curator Laura Vookles, this was the first show that I was able to work on. Laura has been at the Museum for three decades, and is a slam poet in her spare time. I have a background in skateboarding. It was a perfect inaugural exhibition for me: although all of the works come from the Museum’s permanent collection, many are on view for the first time. This offered the opportunity to research the paintings and look very closely at these objects. In my research and experience in hanging and thinking about this show, I had a few revelations which I will happily share.
One was a small detail of Hermann Fuechsel’s “Hudson River Scene,” 1875, on the lower left of the painting: a solitary walker in this resplendent evening landscape, looking west. Easy to miss with a casual glance, the figure is hard to forget once examined. Fuechsel deftly illuminated the branches near the figure through which the figure presumably using red, yellow, and green highlights. The effect is both extraordinary and totally conceivable: of course this figure is looking through the trees. The tree frames the figures view as the frame of the painting does ours. The painting posits a very 19th century way of looking at the landscape. Fuechsell, a German-born painter, draws on a tradition of placing Ruckenfiguren, figures that function as surrogates for the viewer, in the landscape. These figures are the audience’s way into the painting: they see what we see, their experience is our experience.
Over the course of nearly two centuries of art on display in this show, the experience of nature moves from the imaginative to the immersive, as modern artists like Joseph Di Giorgio and Ellen Kozak seem to record their sensory experiences directly upon the canvas, without the aid of a surrogate figure. As a graduate student, my interest in art is both theoretical and tactile, but often the archival research, seminars, copious theorizing, and academic proselytizing can take me away from immediate experience.
Another revelation was the opportunity, available to all of us, to visit some of these landscapes. The rich artistic legacy of the Hudson River Valley surrounding us can sometimes be taken for granted. Such an opportunity presented itself to me on October 27th, when I joined a museum field trip with Laura Vookles and Saralinda Lichtbau, Director of Education at the HRM, to the Thomas Cole House in Catskill, NY. Seeing that the same mountain range that showed up on the horizon of so many of Thomas Cole’s paintings was the mountain range visible from his porch really made palpable the central place of the Hudson River Valley and beyond to Thomas Cole’s art. After a fantastic tour from the fellows and director of the museum, there was just enough daylight to visit the famous Kaaterskill Falls. The drive to the Falls seems to have been lifted from the catalogue raisonné of the Hudson River School, everything tantalizingly familiar. The air was brisk. Autumn leaves still clung to branches in a golden burst, others formed a carpet of orange, grown, and yellow that led us to the lookout over the falls. The view is hard to describe in words, one gets closer in art, and nearly impossible to capture in a photograph. Suffice to say, it is worth the visit. I felt immediately like one of those figures in the painting. I saw what Thomas Cole saw.
The final revelation I will share is this: many of these scenes depicted by these artists are still available to us, and reward any visitors with a once in a lifetime experience. Art not only helps us see with new eyes, it also guides our feet to new places.
Thomas Cole once famously said, “to walk in nature as a poet is the necessary condition of a perfect artist,” and I would add that if that poet is your boss, it is the necessary condition of a perfect afternoon.
The Hudson River Museum is located at 500 Warburton Avenue in Yonkers, New York. For more information about the exhibition Walks With Artists: The Hudson Valley and Beyond, and related programming: hrm.org or 914-963-4550.