Remember the Ladies

Remarkably, signs of gender are difficult to discern in two art exhibitions where gender serves as the qualifying requirement for inclusion. Equally noteworthy is that insights regarding human relationships with landscape are equally mystifying, although this topic served as both exhibitions’ organizing principle.  Thus, the pleasure of observing the accomplished artworks on display is augmented by the opportunity to contemplate their significance. It is further intensified by their relevance since the shows celebrate two special features of the Hudson Valley – its talented residents and its inspirational vistas.


 One exhibition is entitled “Remember the Ladies: Women of the Hudson River School” that is being presented by the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. It expands the list of celebrated 19th century artists from the Hudson Valley by inserting seven women into the official roster of renowned male painters. The other is “Nature / Nurture” installed at the Greene County Council on the Arts Gallery. It features ten contemporary artists who are introducing inventive variations on the presentation of landscape in art. Some honor the legacy of the Hudson River School by perpetuating the philosophical and aesthetic approach to landscape developed by its originators. Others are not.


Lady-like paintings might be the expected outcome during the Victorian era when gender discrepancies were so pronounced.  Yet the encumbrances made evident in women’s corsets, bustles, hoops, bodices, and pointed slippers did not hinder these women’s ambitions. While most women artists stayed home to paint watercolors of flowers in vases, the “Remember the Ladies” artists ventured forth into the wilderness with paint box in hand in search of glorious views. The exhibition provides ample evidence that some of the painters in the 19th century who created ‘heroic’ landscapes were women. One example is Harriet Cany Peale. Her depiction of “Kaaterskill Clove” proves that her spirit was not trammeled by Victorian tenets for women, such as domestic confinement and obedience to male protectors.  Peale’s forays into the wilderness were conducted in the spirit of a hero confronting a fearsome force. Nature, as depicted here, has little in common with the safety and formality of gardens, parks, and promenades. It is a raw and forceful domain. The art historical use of the term ‘heroic’ also seems to apply. Instead of faithfully rendering every observed detail, Peale appears to have assumed an assertive stance by omitting inconvenient details and correcting the flaws in the scene that she observed. Furthermore, the heroic words ‘bold’ and ‘daring’ describe Peale’s composition in which a powerful diagonal created out of a rocky palisade and scattered boulders sweeps across the canvas. These words apply to the meeting of deep shadowed surfaces bristling with bright highlights. They express the dramatic progression from the noisy solidity of stone to the ethereal hush of distant mountains. In all these ways Peale asserted the fortitude and independence the era typically reserved for men. 


The exhibition also presents  Edith Wilkinson Cook who relished the autumn forest’s offering of rich, velvety, russet hues and Evilina Mount who was inspired by placid streams winding through virgin woods. Whereas Cook and Mount discovered beauties that are so fundamental to the Hudson River region, they seem to be proverbial, Josephine Chamberlin Ellis chose an anomaly as her subject. She depicted a towering bridge flanking steep terraces that was carved over many millennia by the force of a rushing stream. Ellis’s restive brush dramatizes the contest between the power of fluid water and the vulnerability of solid rock. Laura Woodward displays none of Ellis’s fervor. The strength of her work derives from Victorian social refinements. Her neat hand and delicate demeanor render the complexities of nature with exquisite grace. By layering three independent landscapes – a foreground occupied by a stream and wispy willow tree, a middle ground where wheat is being harvested, and a background where majestic mountains meet a placid sky – the painting could serve as a tutorial for aspiring landscape artists.  


The “Nature / Nurture” exhibition seeks the ‘woman’s touch’ among artists who share the accumulated history of women’s suffrage, economic independence, reproductive rights, casual wear, and professional opportunities.  How did this altered cultural vantage affect women’s depictions of landscape?  Are today’s women more openly indignant regarding signs of environmental corruption? Or more nostalgic? Or more deferential? Or more intrusive? Or more expressive?  It appears they are all of the above.


Despite the passage of a century and a half, both generations confronted disturbing evidence of the shrinking of virgin and rural lands in the Hudson Valley.  Throughout the 19th century, the Hudson River was already being harnessed as an engine of the Industrial Revolution. Steam boats chugged through the waters, steam railroads roared along the banks, coal fueled factories belched black smoke, water wheels and early turbines powered iron mills, grist mills, textile mills, and paper mills.  Dams, blast furnaces, and forges began to overtake marshes, wetlands, and estuaries.


 The traffic and clamor that was disturbing the primeval tranquility of the region had two surprising effects. It propelled the rise of tourism as urbanites sought refuge in the surviving wilderness, and it inspired artists to venture forth to record beautiful scenes while they lasted. As these conflicting realities merged, the Hudson River region became the birthplace of two historic movements. One is the official initiation of the nation’s preservation movement; in 1894 the New York State legislature passed a “Forever Wild” Amendment to its Constitution that mandated law-makers to protect water, soil, and timber resources.  The other milestone is cultural. The Hudson River School of painting, acclaimed as the young nation’s first modern art movement, resisted the encroachment of industry by amplifying the glory of pristine mountains, rivers, and skies on their canvases.


Today’s artists view a different Hudson River Valley. It is a confused mixture of remedial attention and rampant development, conservation easements and industrial intrusions. Efforts to halt the abuse, repair the damage, and preserve the wilderness coexist with continued threats from coal plants, gas drilling industries, and cement factories. This complex scenario is in full evidence in the “Nature/Nurture” exhibition.


Glancing around the gallery suffices to impress the viewer with the expansion of mediums, diversity of styles, variety of scales, multiplicity of perspectives, range of approaches to landscape.  Yet there are commonalities that may transcend these apparent differences.  Both exhibitions abound with women artists who lavish ‘Mother Nature’ with admiration for the visual splendors she affords. They relish her textures, admire her forms, glorify her colors. At the same time they overlook her infirmities. This essay concludes with the two compelling exceptions to this pattern.


Glories of landscape can be discovered near at hand and in distanced views. The “Nature. Nurture.” artists offer examples of a broad range of perspectives. Susan Togut establishes the most intimate interaction. She discards artistic representation and mediums that serve as intermediaries to translate an observed scene into an observable artwork. Instead, she gleans actual bones, weeds, seed balls, and twigs and assembles them into sculpted material landscapes.


Kaete Brittin Shaw reverses Togut’s practice when se displays her work in the landscape, not a gallery. Clay serve as her medium to evoke such organic entities like shells, fungi, tendrils, petals, and seed pods. Shaw accomplishes this by creating multitudes of little glazed porcelain forms that she strings together in the fashion of necklaces and then entwines around the trunks and branches of living trees. Shaw introduces a fascinating variant on landscape art. Instead of depicting, interpreting, or idealizing a scene, she enhances an actual landscape by embellishing its trees.


 Olivia Stonner steps back from her subject to view the optical subtleties of the Hudson River in winter. Her camera registers evanescent flowing passages beside frozen crystals of ice. The resulting images elegantly balance the static/crystalline and the fluid/amorphous qualities of water. 


Linda Cross, like Stonner, examines river water rushing downstream. What she perceives is topographic, chromatic, and textured.  Her elaborate process of layering paper, paint, and paper mache evokes water rushing against rocks, reflecting sunlight, tumbling over banks, seeping into earth.  This “Riverline Series” references familiar locations like Tivoli Bay and Clover Reach, enabling viewers to imagine the sources of her inspiration.


Mariella Bisson also turns her attention to the relationship between flowing water and stationery rocks. Like Cross, she seeks the richness of texture and the depth of color that is the special appeal of paper collage. She then enhances her collages by allowing tabs of protruding paper to cast actual shadows that deepen beyond the darkest paint. A water color sketch serves as the foundation and springboard for her crafted improvisations. Bisson’s work celebrates the material and energetic essence of free falling water.


Sasha Chermayeff steps back a little further from her subject which is always the same bend in the river. It is always viewed through her studio window. Her collection of small paintings reveals the multifaceted changes that continuously occur within this restricted situation. Time of day, weather, and season do not exhaust their variability. Chermayeff’s compositions proliferate as she documents the water’s continuous carving of new channels and its perpetual sculpting of banks with sediments. 


Jane Bloodgood Abrams establishes herself in a distanced observation post in order to embrace the glory of the setting sun as it saturates the skies and bathes the Valley’s topographies with golden hues. The broad panoramas that she paints pay homage to the founders of the Hudson River School by evoking the otherworldly splendors that our Earthly region actually manifests.


Claudia McNulty and Christry Rupp reference unsettling components of the Hudson River region. McNulty does not sacrifice optical loveliness to evoke a menacing undertone. She addresses the infected tick that travels on deer and causes debilitating lime disease. The disease’s molecules are scattered around her fanciful rendering of three agile deer. They are depicted prancing among an array of cross cut tree trunks, presumably referring to the destruction of forests which bring deer into proximity with people.


Christy Rupp’s landscapes also offer an attractive visual experience to convey an ominous message about the contemporary landscape.  Her impeccable collages remind viewers of the unsavory parts of the Hudson River landscape by presenting industrial mono-culture crops where diverse rainforests once thrived, and utility towers that rise above forest tree tops.  In a work entitled “Flood Plain. Food Plan,” Rupp presents wide open fields in which no crops or sheep are grazing, no wild flowers are growing, no children are romping.  Instead, endless rows of glasses brimming with polluted water stretch across the horizon. This devastated landscape is a site for natural gas drilling, not the production of healthful foods.


Definitions of art, conditions of landscape, and qualities of femininity are primary ingredients in these exhibitions. Since all three are still evolving, it remains to be seen if the distinguished legacy of the Hudson River School of painters will be perpetuated or replaced. What is clear is that 21st century Hudson River women artists are following the example of those in the 19th century by defining the cultural values for the region and the nation.