|By David McCormick
The Hudson River Valley, its forest floors mottled with sunlight and verdant hillsides speckled with craggy outcroppings, forms the region’s spectacular backbone that has inspired landscape artists for the last 200 years. Nature’s chromatics drew painters to this region in New York and held them captive.
Thomas Cole is considered the founder of the Hudson River School of Painting. The River School was not a standardized entity, but a movement driven by the topographical beauty of the Hudson River Valley and environs. Many artists of the Hudson River School are considered important visual storytellers in oil and watercolor such as Asher B. Durand, Frederic Edwin Church and John Frederick . But, there were also a number of women artists working within the Hudson River School genre.
Like their male counterparts, these women were drawn in by the lush river valley. And just as Bryant and Cooper regaled in their visions of the Hudson River region with prose, those artistic women interpreted their visual impressions with brush and palette knife. The locales that served as their ateliers ranged from the Hudson River Valley, the Catskills and the Adirondacks, into other northeast environs: the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Green Mountains of Vermont and pastoral pageants throughout New England.
While these women were gifted, their artistic achievements were seldom given reference when Hudson River painters of import were measured. Yet all were capable of transferring the deep stirrings they held for the early-American frontier landscape from their hearts to their hands, with artistic authority.
Many of the women’s situations were at opposite poles from their male counterparts; some reared children alone, had fewer opportunities to exhibit their work and carried the stigma of being a woman in what was considered a man’s pursuance. Julie Hart Beers, Edith Wilkinson Cook, Laura Woodward and Eliza Greatorex were among the women traipsing through America’s northeast landscape with easels and canvas. Susie M. Barstow, Sarah Cole, as well as Evelina Mount and Harriet Cany Peale, each with their own story to tell, added to the lengthy list of accomplished women landscape artists.
A transplant from Massachusetts, Julie Hart Beers, said goodbye to friends and with her husband Marion, moved to New York. Although Julie enjoyed the same sunlit studio as her older brothers, James and William Hart, back in the Bay State, she was mesmerized by her new surroundings. With brush and palette and armed with the Hart artistic genes, she pushed forward into the Hudson Valley landscape. Summer Landscape and Hudson Valley at Croton Point, both oils on canvas were the result of her travels throughout the hillocks and dales.
Eliza Greatorex carried an amplified burden when compared to some of the other women artists of the time. Widowed, the better part of each day was spent cooking, cleaning and caring for her two young children. Yet, she found time for her painting. Her eyes took in the same Hudson River landscape that others did, but she embraced her own subjective view. Where other artists put brush to canvas depicting granite outcroppings or storm filled skies hovering over the Highlands she took in a tranquil landscape. Perhaps the quiescent tones in the pastoral scene found in her painting entitled, Joseph Chaudlet House on the Bloomingdale Road, brought the calm she sought in her harried life.
Although, born in England, Frances (Fanny) Palmer shared a commonality with Eliza Greatorex. Through different circumstances she was also the sole support for her family. She was probably best known for her renderings produced for Currier and Ives. Although the famous lithographers controlled the content of their prints, the peaceful scenes she portrayed for the pair were reminiscent of the techniques of the Hudson River School.
Harriet Cany Peale also worked within certain constraints. As the wife of Rembrandt Peale, she assisted him in a driving trade, selling copies of his Madonna and Child. Harriet turned out several copies over the years.
Fanny Palmer worked from sketches she had drawn in the field. Although somewhat idealized, her painted scenes were not generic but featured specific locales, such as her 1857 lithograph, the Hudson Highlands. Palmer’s New York Drawing Book contains a series of original designs and sketches of American scenery.
Harriet Cany Peale was an accomplished portraitist in her own right, as shown by her painting, Ideal Portrait. In 1857, Still Life with Lowestoft Bowl gave weight to a talent that allowed her to infuse life into stock and stone. The completion of her oil on canvas, Kaaterskill Cove, ensured her inclusion into the ranks of important artists in the Hudson River School movement.
Trekking throughout New England and New York, Laura Woodward discovered inspiration for her paintings.
A third generation Hudson River landscape painter, she was a highly successful artist. A native of New York state, she is one of the most topographically and geographically diverse painters of the Hudson River School. She hiked the Catskills, the Adirondacks, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire ferreting out locales. Woodward’s paintings were included at the Boston Art Club and displayed at the Centennial Exposition of 1876. Her works attest to her broad view of dissimilar landscapes. Prices realized for some of her landscape oils surpassed those of her male contemporaries. That wanderlust removed her to the wilds of Florida in the latter half of her artistic career. The same adventuresome spirit that carried her through the wooded forests of the Northeast placed her in tropical-jungle environs, bristling with panthers and alligators. Here, in Florida, she was assigned the same acclaim for her work as was received in New York.
Like so many of the other women artists of the Hudson River School, Evelina Mount, raised at the family homestead in Stony Brook, N.Y., seemed to be born into the avocation. As daughter to Henry and niece to Shepard and William Mount—artists all, she was most likely immersed in artistic creativity. But as an artist she cast her own personality and singularity into each painting. Her floral paintings give one a more ’close-up’ look at the landscape. Her oil on canvas entitled, Daisies, allows a more intimate perspective rather than the broader view afforded by her landscape with trees.
Edith Wilkinson Cook was taken by the region’s fall colors and captured them in the region’s forested landscape in her painting, entitled Autumnal Landscape. And with her oil on canvas, Golden Landscape, she addressed the issue of man’s impact on the natural landscape.
Recent auction records appear sparse as original paintings by these women artists do not appear for sale often. Two noted exhibitions were hosted by The National Academy of Design of New York and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for several of the Hudson River women painters.