The Catskill Mountains and Hudson River Valley in New York State were the inspiration for a group of painters in the early to mid 1800’s - The Hudson River School. It is through their eyes that we have a sense of that original landscape. As development and global warning continue to change our landscape it is their depiction that we consider an accurate indication of that virginal world.
Sketching outdoors, these artists paid careful attention to the correct rendering of the minute details of the landscape, although they were not afraid to literally move mountains in order to create an effect that would fit their sense of the “Picturesque.”
While the great European landscape painters traditionally inspired them, the Hudson River artists, were in search of an art form that would allow them to express and celebrate that which set America apart from Europe. And they found it in the paintings that captured the grandeur of the American Landscape.
“Kindred Spirits” is perhaps one of the best known of these paintings. The painting by Asher Durant, depicts the his friend, the deceased painter Thomas Cole and the poet William Cullen Bryant standing on a rocky ledge overlooking the Catskills It is titled after a phrase in a Keats sonnet and has long been considered one of the finest examples of Hudson River School painting. It was commissioned by Jonathan Sturges, one of Durand's most important patrons, as a gift for Bryant, and it remained in the Bryant family until his daughter, Julia, donated it to the New York Public Library early in the 20th century. The painting’s idealized composition brings together several sites, including the Clove of the Catskills, Kaaterskill Falls and Fawn’s Leap, in a way that is not geographically possible.
The author Bill Bryson describes his affection for the painting....“It shows two men standing on a rock ledge in the Catskills in one of those sublime lost world settings that look as if they would take an expedition to reach, though the two figures in the painting are dressed, incongruously, as if for the office, in long coats and plump cravats. Below them, in a shadowy chasm, a stream dashes through a jumble of boulders. Beyond, glimpsed through a canopy of leaves, is a long view of gorgeously forbidding Blue Mountains. To right and left, jostling into frame, are disorderly ranks of trees, which immediately vanish into consuming darkness.
I can’t tell you how much I would like to step into that view. The scene is so manifestly untamed, so full of an impenetrable beyond, as to present a clearly foolhardy temptation. You would die out there for sure -- shredded by a cougar or thudded with a tomahawk or just left to wander to a stumbling, confounding death. You can see that at a glance. But never mind. Already you are studying the foreground for a way down the stream over the steep rocks and wondering if that notch ahead will get you through to the neighboring valley. Farewell, my friends. Destiny calls. Don’t wait supper.”1
Bill Bryson continues to jest about the scene. He questions how much artistic license these painters took with replicating the scenery -- “Who, after all, is going to struggle with an easel and campstool and box of paints to some difficult overlook, on a hot July afternoon, in a wilderness filled with danger, and NOT paint something exquisite and grand?”
This painting hung in New York Public Library for decades until several years ago, when desperately needing funding, the Library sold it at auction to Walmart heiress, Alice Walton for 35 million dollars to display at her new museum. New York art lovers reacted with outrage seeing it as a civic landmark. “60 Minutes” TV program Correspondent Morley Safer commented that the “grand inherent irony is that all that Wal-Mart money was gleaned from the systematic destruction of the very American landscape Ms. Walton so expensively celebrates.”
Thomas Cole "Sunrise in the Catskill Mountains"
Frederick Church "Morning Looking East"
1. A Walk in the Woods: Bill Bryson, Broadway Books 1998