Friday, December 9, 2016

The Lost Image: Acknowledgement and Analysis of a Hudson River School Painting

   Figure 1: Northwest View from Trophy Point at West Point Overlooking Storm King Mountain and the Hudson River 
  Figure 2: View from Trophy Point at West Point Overlooking Storm King Mountain, from The Hudson River Highlands by Francis Dunwell
            Intrigued by both the seductive beauty and the awe-inspiring qualities of American nature, the Hudson River School artists manifested Romanticism’s foundations. They found creative awakening in the sublimity discovered in nature and sought to capture this notion with every stroke of paint placed on their canvases.[1] This nineteenth-century movement was named after the members’ affinity for painting the Hudson River and areas encompassing it, such as the Adirondack and Catskill mountain ranges.[2] Painters of the school frequently placed emphasis on the harmonious coexistence of humanity and nature, but they also heavily associated the spiritual with what they observed. Hudson River School members felt strongly that the American wilderness was the actual materialization of the Holy Spirit.[3] The American landscape movement was also founded on the basis of producing a national identity for the states. The primary components of this artistic development were rooted in the need to motivate and inspire Americans and future inhabitants to travel and explore their countryside.[4]
           The painting I discuss here, Northwest View from Trophy Point at West Point Overlooking Storm King Mountain and the Hudson River (Figure 1), is an unsigned and undated work that I viewed at a conservator’s studio in Birmingham, Alabama. The painting was purchased at an antique shop in New England and is now in a local private collection. The painting gives a panoramic impression, as the width is much greater than its height. Conforming to the dimensions of the painting, the frame hosts ornate details and areas of oxidation all over its surface. The painting is oil based and appears to have no damage or wear, as the surface appears taught, bright and intact. This artwork is not signed or dated, nor is its provenance documented. Based on the subject matter and style of this painting, I suggest that the location depicted is most likely a northwest view from Trophy point at West Point overlooking Storm King Mountain and the Hudson River and place its creation during the years 1843-1847.
          My research suggests that the probable geographic location of the painting is West Point on the Hudson River, looking toward Storm King Mountain. The artist has chosen to represent a northwest view with significant historical context. From this point, the observer is strategically situated so that Storm King Mountain is just beginning to take shape on the left side of the canvas. In the foreground, the earth rises and falls, altering the perspective of the spectator by masking other components of the actual landscape. The form of Constitution Island should be visible on the right side of the work, but the artist has chosen to manipulate the perspective, so that this feature is hidden. This exclusion might have been made because of stylistic necessity, as the Island may have taken away from emphasis placed on the outward expanse of the landscape. Another island that can be identified is in the form of an extremely small, dark and distant land mass.
          Northwest View from Trophy Point features three mountain ranges in its right portion. The third and most distant mountain reveals a small darkened area just off its coast. This feature is believed to be Pollepel Island, also referred to as Bannerman’s Island. The existence of this land mass strengthens the claim of the painting’s suggested view. Furthermore, modern day photographs taken from Trophy Point reveal a similar coastline as the one seen within Northwest View from Trophy Point. The direction of the setting sun, as seen in photographs from this location, can also be aligned with the light source seen in the painting (Figure 2). Used as the subject and viewpoint of many works dating from the early nineteenth-century, Trophy Point is an elevated location with a famously scenic view of the Hudson River. Though not referred to as Trophy Point until the very late nineteenth-century, many artists traversed the coastline surrounding West Point, looking for the perfect composition.[5]
          A Hudson River School painter would be drawn to this location, not only for its unending beauty, but also for its national significance. The historical grounds of West Point began around 1802 when President Thomas Jefferson guaranteed that a United States Military Academy would be built. The West Point campus is considered to be a national landmark and plays host to many other historically relevant sites.[6] It was this belief in unity and settlement of land that strengthened the bond between this location and Hudson River painters.
            In conclusion, while the work is not signed, dated or accompanied by any written records, evidence has been provided that allows for the claims suggested to be greatly strengthened. The American landscape movement was founded on the basis of producing a national identity for the states. Hudson River School painters strove to capture the American lifestyle and mindset through the depiction of the very thing that brought them here, the land. By capturing the most inspiring elements from several different locations, artists were able to build, not only an aesthetically pleasing composition, but one that symbolically captured the connecting foundations upon which America was built. In this work, Northwest View from Trophy Point, the ideas and beliefs surrounding American landscape painting are perfectly pictured. The artist chose to provide a unique perspective for the viewer by choosing to paint this work from the coastline of West Point, an area laden with rich history. The scenic, panoramic view works to pull the observer into the work and the true spirit of America. 

   1. Diana Strazdes, "Wilderness and Its Waters: A Professional Identity for the Hudson River School," Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 7, no. 2 (2009): 358.
   2. Strazdes, "Wilderness and Its Waters: A Professional Identity for the Hudson River School," 335.
   3. Strazdes, "Wilderness and Its Waters: A Professional Identity for the Hudson River School," 358.
   4. Angela Miller, The Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825-1875 (New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), 14.
   5. Frances Dunwell, The Hudson River Highlands (New York: Columbia Press University, 1991), 67.
  6. Robert McDonald, “Thomas Jefferson’s Military Academy: Founding West Point,” The Journal of Southern History 72, no. 3 (2006): 660.

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