Professor of visual art Sean Foley and COA students visit the sites depicted by the Hudson River School painters on the Owl Trail, Baxter State Park, Maine, giving them an opportunity to experience and analyze the natural beauty of the 19th century landscape art first hand.Professor of visual art Sean Foley and COA students visit the sites depicted by the Hudson River School painters on the Owl Trail, Baxter State Park, Maine, giving them an opportunity to experience and analyze the natural beauty of the 19th century landscape art first hand.

By wandering to and through sites visited by painters of the Hudson River School, students encounter the places that structured the ideas and enterprise of the artist/naturalist/explorers who created a body of work that is iconic in the American imagination.  The class visits museums, archives, private collections, and topographies in the Berkshires, Catskills, Hudson River Valley, and the North Woods and Coast of Maine. Following the journey, students create ambitious works of art sourced from their experiences that respond to the sites, concepts, and artists that embody the ideas of this course from a human ecological position.

Dan Mahoney: Why this monster course now?

Sean Foley: First off, what was so amazing was how easy it was to put together this “monster course” at COA. The school supported us and allowed us to design and run with our ideas. I can’t imagine another institution in the country where that is even possible…

Catherine Clinger: Exactly.

SF: Catherine and I are both interested in Romanticism and the Gothic and darkness in general, like Thomas Cole’s storm paintings with the broken trees and those landscapes… When I first got to COA, I’d be walking around campus and I kept thinking about Cole and Church arriving before any of this was here and what a problem it all was for them. They arrived in their suits and ties with their painting kits strapped onto their backs, hacking through the brush pushing forward, trying to find the spot. Since I arrived at COA, the Hudson River School is always on my mind.

CC: And the other part was that we were both interested in the relationship to materiality with those artists, the materials they used to make art and understanding that there were conventions and traditions that defined how things were done in the past. So both of us were very interested in trying to resituate our students to the idea of the Hudson River School being something larger than a School since it really is not a “school.”

Priyamvada Chaudhary '20 at Millinocket Lake.Priyamvada Chaudhary '20 at Millinocket Lake.

DM: How did it become known as a “school”? 

CC: Well, they all lived in New York. Church, Bierstadt, and Heade hung out together in the 10th Street Art Building in Greenwich Village. 

DM: You’re kidding. They were all just neighbors?

CC: They were neighbors in a way but they didn’t get together to paint or have a paint circle or anything like that. It was a certain kind of like-mindedness when it came to being present in the landscape of the Hudson River Valley. So they developed this nostalgic relationship to the landscape, which was changing rapidly.

SF: They had a selective vision but because human beings like classification so much, we put them in the same “school,” but really, they were the first modern American painters. They were composing these paintings, choosing what to include and what to exclude. There is this famous story about [Albert] Bierstadt, who painted more in the West, where he just moved a mountain from one side of the canvas to the other because it made more sense compositionally. And you might have Thomas Cole dragging in a hillside from the right to get it a little closer to the tree so he could triangulate the person in the scene… Painters have done this for ages, but the gall of the Hudson River School artists just completely upending the landscape is like a metaphor for what was happening with westward expansion. 

“Sublimity is about immersion and surrender to a certain degree. They would let a space take them where it could go… I love that.”

DM: Right. Their world was changing so quickly. I can see them wanting to document the wilderness because it represented godliness or the ideal… 

CC: Yes, that, but it also represented the potential for the human imagination. There’s nothing like a void that can be filled. So, as the attention was starting to turn from the East to the West, there was a preoccupation in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, at least in the American imagination, to really measure the vicinity and environs around NYC, Philadelphia, and Boston. But also, measure how far one could go with the human imagination in these spaces, because a lot of these artists were very accustomed to the traditions that came out of Europe, traditions governed less by place and more by ideas, mythology… There’s a reason why when you read Wordsworth or Coleridge you still get this feeling that all you had to do was go to Scotland or the Lake District… Just go a little bit further out of the city. In America “space” was really starting to shrink. Especially in the East as the push west was really picking up steam.

DM: Part of the aesthetic of the Hudson River School was the idea of the sublime. Along with the sublime comes this idea of wonder…of something beyond language. 

CC: The thing is that people really bought into the whole Edmund Burke almost “self dialogue” that he had about sublimity, but it was matched by the beautiful and the picturesque. And you need to have that tension to understand sublimity. The picturesque is completely orchestrated and absolutely artificial, it breathes into a space and organizes it, the beautiful isn’t necessarily a lazy reception but it is a way of having an uncontested relationship with nature… Then you get to sublimity and your breath, your language is, in fact, taken away. The ground, if it’s not shaking, is moving anyway, and suddenly you realize you can’t put everything in a box. I like to think of it as all of a sudden you realize you’re having a full body experience… Sublimity is about immersion and surrender to a certain degree. They would let a space take them where it could go… I love that.

Dr. Catherine Clinger and students observe and analyze Sanford R. Gifford's work at the Thomas Cole House in Catskill, New York. The class visits museums, archives, private collections, and topographies in the Berkshires, Catskills, Hudson River Valley, and the North Woods and Coast of Maine.Dr. Catherine Clinger and students observe and analyze Sanford R. Gifford's work at the Thomas Cole House in Catskill, New York. The class visits museums, archives, private collections, and topographies in the Berkshires, Catskills, Hudson River Valley, and the North Woods and Coast of Maine.

SF: Wonder has always been this dismantling of any linguistic capacity to understand what you just saw, witnessed, etc. I equate wonder with vision and it precludes curiosity. So you see this thing happen, this spectacular sunset, or you see something tragic, something that is just appalling to you, and you can’t register what happened. That only lasts a split second, but that’s the seed. After that what kicks in is this whole notion of curiosity. Wonder and curiosity are often conflated but curiosity is that moment of subjective analysis: what was that thing and what can I do with it? And then you use your imagination to make these associative connections between things or develop some sort of analogical thinking rather than some sort of linear thought… In the end you get artistic movements like the Hudson River School creating from that seed of wonder.

DM: The essays in the syllabus for the class were really eye opening for me. In Barbara Novak’s essay “American Landscape: Changing Concepts in the Sublime,” she points out that there would often be two people in these landscapes. Is that so when you got your breath back you could say to your companion: was that real? 

CC: That is so great. That is why I brought up the beautiful, the picturesque, and the sublime, because you need to have a point of comparison. In visual art those people who appear in landscape paintings are called “staffage.” 

DM: Like surveyors? Someone holding the stick to get the slope? 

CC: Exactly. So there might be two people in the poetic presentation or two people in the visual presentation…but there’s someone else and it’s like a triangulation… The other enables us, the viewers, to occupy and be present in that space through our imaginative projection into the staffage, or the figures or whatever. 

Jessica Arseneau '18 opens her watercolor set to paint the beautiful surroundings at Nesowadnehunk Stream, Baxter State Park.Jessica Arseneau '18 opens her watercolor set to paint the beautiful surroundings at Nesowadnehunk Stream, Baxter State Park.

DM: In Wallace Stevens’ The Idea of Order at Key West, you have this speaker walking down the beach and he is listening to a woman singing and the waves breaking and he is wondering about real and imagined worlds and toward the end of the poem the speaker says, “tell me, Ramon Fernandez…” and the reader is just: who the hell is Ramon Fernandez and how did he get here? Now I know: Ramon Fernandez is the staffage! 

CC: And sometimes the fiction is it’s me and someone else, but maybe it’s not…maybe it’s the inner voice. And I hate to use the word “trigger” but there’s that thought that someone is actually listening…even if you need to imagine that someone. So you are out there and you are having this experience and you are actually starting to question whether you are in your body any more, it is really nice to have another material being of the same species… If you have a staffage, it is like having a spiritual companion. Communion means that you are sharing and that is a very important spiritual concept as part of the Hudson River School. And you have to remember in the scientific tradition of the time, these guys were documenting things, making observations… They were citizen scientists. 

DM: In Julian Bell’s essay, “Contemporary Art and the Sublime,” he discusses how science in the twentieth century caused artists to reinterpret the sublime… You get, for instance, Rothko. 

CC: What I love about that reading is that everyone thinks about sublimity in America as iconic views and landscapes but when you take the two eyes and turn them within, like the Greek gods do, you look at your own reflection in someone’s eyes… All of a sudden you realize you might be present, and you might be having a full body experience but it really is all happening in your head… Poor Rothko, he drove himself into such a dark place from which he could not recover. I think that is why the Hudson River School is so important for our students to come in contact with. Often things are held in capsules of the past and we lose the connections to how ideas cycle through history. The more that we see how other people have worked with the potentialities then things become, as Dario Gamboni would say, “potential images.” In the end, we did not ask our students to create the penultimate climactic object or project. 

“There was a mutual exchange of information, which made us partners. There was no hierarchy. I had the same amount of curiosity and wonder on these journeys as they did.”

DM: I loved that show.

CC: Thank you. They worked really hard. And it wasn’t about achievement or success and it wasn’t about failure either. We were thinking if we are going to distill this down, the idea of sublimity being a grand form of experience, that whole process of distillation, how sad that would be, right? To take these students to all of these cultural institutions, to these museums, to experience art over a 200 year period, not just 25 years in the nineteenth century. To let go of the ideas in the “isms” and the movements and see that we share experiences that might not all be expressed the same way, but sublimity is not American…it is human.

DM: How did you put together the list of places to visit? DIA Beacon and Storm King surprised me. 

SF: DIA Beacon and Storm King and even Church’s Olana, the estate, Teresita Fernandez had a show up there when we went. There is a program at some of these institutions like Olana where they have guest artists come in and do “artist interventions.” A guest artist comes in and puts up a show as a sort of critique of this Manifest Destiny outlook or asks the question: what constitutes painting? But we went to those spots to provide some context and give the students time to access and develop a relationship to the content of the course. 

The group takes a hike near Big Niagra Falls, Baxter State Park. The class visits the places that structured the ideas and enterprise of the artists.The group takes a hike near Big Niagra Falls, Baxter State Park. The class visits the places that structured the ideas and enterprise of the artists.

CC: The DIA Beacon and Storm King seemed critical. And they were at the top of the list from the beginning. We didn’t just think, we love it there so let’s just make an excuse to go there. Storm King is like turning the experience of art outside-in. So DIA Beacon, even though there are some objects located outside and some objects that enable certain kinds of experiences outside, for the most part you’re in this huge enclosed space. During the historical period of the Hudson River School, what was overwhelming to most people was the idea of panoramic vision. Remember, this was the same time period balloon travel first started. It was like an all seeing eye, it was like a divinity when you’re up high looking down… Panoramic vision was the capacity to see all around. 

DM: There is the importance of the journey, which is striking. It really gets me thinking about Robert Smithson and the journey to art for both the artist and the viewer… Like just getting out to the Spiral Jetty. 

CC: Not everything is available to us at all times. I think that oftentimes we think we have to get on the hiking trail or go to the apex of some granite formation somewhere. But one doesn’t need verticality necessarily to have that and sublimity… So when you get on the Hudson, it is very different to drive alongside of it or to come across it and bisect it than it is to go up it, or down it. Just being on that river is a phenomenal experience. 

SF: We were in Baxter State Park, and I was hiking up this mountain with Emily Michaud ’18, Jeremiah Kemberling ’19, Priyam Chaudhary ’20, and Mariana Cadena Robles ’18, and it was amazing for me to watch how they responded to the trail and lichen and fungi and mosses. They could just stop in their tracks and name some fungi and know how it worked in the surrounding environment. That was really inspirational for me because there was a mutual exchange of information at that point, which made us partners. There was no hierarchy. So I had the same amount of curiosity and wonder on these journeys as they did. And then there were the galleries…

CC: We set it up for them in the galleries, you go in and really get in to the picture on the wall and you have a dialogue with it, but then you go in the DIA Beacon and there’s the Smithson, the piles of sand and broken glass, and Walter De Maria’s great I Ching piece. You get there and all of a sudden you have to move your head, your entire body. That museum requires a different type of participatory urgency from the visitor.

Leigh Rankin '20 takes a closer look at a piece at the Albany Institute of History and Art. This course gave students a curated immersive experience into the Hudson River School paintings.Leigh Rankin '20 takes a closer look at a piece at the Albany Institute of History and Art. This course gave students a curated immersive experience into the Hudson River School paintings.

DM: You just pull the rug out… So all of a sudden you have the sublime again and it’s foreign, it is something that you are not expecting… Can you swing with it? 

CC: We live in this place that is engineered for the picturesque, in proximity to Acadia National Park. So, there is still an expectation that there are boundaries that contain the immeasurable in these great foresighted cultural productions. And then to take them into the DIA Beacon and to be within walls…but all of a sudden not having the sense of boundaries at all because of these expansive works that most of our students are uncomfortable with. It’s not that you have to work harder, it’s just that you have to trust your experience a little bit more with these things. And then to go across the river to Storm King where there are no walls and you just feel like you’re falling… Which is great, you know? Here you are in a landscape again and it’s pretty obvious that this landscape has been made for you.

DM: So you start to look at how everything in the world has been engineered for you. It makes your eyes sharper.

CC: It really does and you start to realize that, wow, maybe I’m not a vessel unto myself.

DM: That there is a pretty valuable piece of knowledge. 

CC: The subject for the class and the readings were set up in such a way to formally calculate what sublimity is and then talk about it in these formal discourses: What is the definition of landscape? What do you mean by the word landscape? What about the etymology of the word? And discover it’s not all English and so on. And then to come forward in the twentieth century to things that are in the present but seem the most unfamiliar to the extent that the past becomes super familiar…

DM: When the past is your only touchstone you come back to the idea of old white dudes setting your frame of reference. So then you need to talk about a “colonized mind” and how can you decolonize your thinking?

SF: Exactly, the “colonized mind.” You know, a lot of students come out of their educational experience thinking imagination is not something that is privileged or special or even necessary. What is taught and what is valued in school is remembering specific parts of a book, for example, because they might be on a test and not remembering your own emotional reaction to a book, which has no boundaries, no rights and wrongs, and is completely subjective. When students get to college, it is almost like they feel the imagination is scary. It is a scary proposition taking a studio course because you are making up the content as you go along. You rely on yourself for each next move.

CC: The imagination is über important. No matter what path you’re going to take, and how much you try to submit yourself to this bizarre world that we’ve concocted, there’s always a place to go and you can create the doorway yourself… Now I’m getting really William Blake on you!

A sculpture at Storm King Art Center Cornwall, New York. Following their journey, students create works of art in response to the sites, concepts, and paintings seen and reflected upon. A sculpture at Storm King Art Center Cornwall, New York. Following their journey, students create works of art in response to the sites, concepts, and paintings seen and reflected upon.

DM: I really loved the show the class put up at the Blum Gallery. It was so distinct—like looking at different points of view—unified but very singular. You had text based stuff, drawings, paintings, installations… 

SF: The only thing we both knew was that we wanted the students to be present in their work. We wanted them to trust their experience.

CC: Often times there is this “we all come together” and instead it was “let’s experience this together” and then completely fall apart—not in a break down in tears kind of way—but really dig down into your own well. And maybe someone has had the same full bucket all along, but by the time you get it all the way down there and you start dragging it out, it’s transformed… That’s what was so amazing about that show. And Sean and I were really pushing them, so we didn’t know how it would all turn out…

DM: It seemed like the start of something rather than the end of something. 

CC: Yeah. Well… Hopefully that’s what this is all about.