Connoisseurship and the Hudson River School

On September 14th, gallery owner, Jennifer Krieger, presented a lecture by invitation to the Atlanta Art Forum, a dedicated group of Georgia art collectors. She spoke on the importance of connoisseurship in the collection of Hudson River School paintings. We have copied below for your enjoyment a partial text of her presentation, so you may also hear her thoughts on building the ideal collection of paintings from our country’s first indigenous art movement.



                                                                                                                                              Jonathan Sturges            Luman Reed               Elias Magoon

In advising you on how best to assemble a quality collection of Hudson River School paintings, I urge you to study with me the original patrons of the movement, revisit their time, and try to extract the wisdom that led them to making better choices. There were three major contemporary patrons of the Hudson River School movement: Luman Reed, Jonathan Sturges and the Reverend Elias Magoon. Each left a distinct and indelible mark on the art market and left us clues to approach collecting the best examples of the movement. Prior to their debut, most early American collectors turned to Old Master paintings, but Reed, Sturges and Magoon were smart to recognize the benefit of personally knowing the artists whose works they collected. They were also excited by the creative fervor of the landscape painters they encountered and became eager to support their artistic ambitions.

Luman Reed became not only a patron of, but also a great friend to Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, William Sidney Mount, Samuel F.B. Morse and others. Born at Green River in Columbia County, New York to a family of farmers, Reed later came to New York City and became successful as an entrepreneur in the business of wholesale dry goods. He was able to retire at the early age of 48 in 1832 and decided to use part of his fortune to put together an esteemed art collection and share it with the public. He wanted to establish with his collection what he called “The New York Gallery of Fine Arts” and took to installing it on the 3rd Floor of his Greenwich Street townhouse. In this space, he held the first meetings of the Sketch Club. Now known as the Century Association, the club began in Reed’s home with meetings that united a group of the leading artists, writers, and collectors, who would discuss the intellectual and aesthetic currents of their time.

Reed created a comprehensive plan to direct the course of his commissions and used the architecture of his townhouse as the optimal backdrop. He commissioned Asher B. Durand to paint portraits of the first seven presidents. This series simultaneously gave the collection a historic importance and established a distinguished line of leadership to mark our nation’s early development. Reed also had in mind one grand piece de resistance, and that was Thomas Cole’s major allegorical work Course of an Empire, which included grand and spirited scenes of a civilization’s hopeful progress, eventual demise, and implied rebirth. He commissioned Cole to paint it for the then lofty sum of $5,000. Painted on a grand scale with painstaking details, this was an extremely ambitious project for Cole.  Unfortunately Luman Reed was not able to see the cycle completed, as he died suddenly and prematurely in 1836. Cole and his colleagues were devastated, but Cole pushed on and completed the Course of an Empire. Through the gracious will of Reed’s wife and the guidance of his great friend, the series and Reed’s entire intact collection eventually made its way into the collection of the New York Historical Society of which it remains an integral part today.

“Thomas Cole: The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1858.3)”. New-York Historical Society. http://www.nyhistory.org/node/62674

Jonathan Sturges respectfully took Reed’s mantle both as a principal of Reed’s business enterprise and as a grand patron of the Hudson River School. Born to humble circumstances in Southport, CT, Sturges was also a self-made man who worked his way up as a clerk in a local grocery store in Fredericksburg, VA, at the age of 17 to become Reed’s chief protégé and eventual successor in New York. He shared with Reed a love of the Hudson River School and became a friend and supporter of these artists, a member and host of the Sketch Club meetings, as well as an honorary member of the National Academy of Design by 1838.

He commissioned some of the most vitally important works of the Hudson River School. These included Cole’s View on the Catskill, which purposefully omitted the railroad’s existence in the scene in order the make an environmental statement. This important commission soon became overshadowed a decade later by an even greater project. In 1848, upon the death of Thomas Cole, Jonathan Sturges enlisted Asher B. Durand to paint a commemorative portrait of their mutual friend Thomas Cole titled Kindred Spirits. He was inspired by the tender eulogy that the poet William Cullen Bryant delivered at Cole’s funeral and chose to portray the poet and painter side by side overarched by a nave of trees atop Kaaterskill Falls.

“Thomas Cole: View on the Catskill—Early Autumn (95.13.3)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/95.13.3 (August 2009)

The intellectual pursuit of beauty was also a distinct accomplishment of another grand patron, the Reverend Elias Magoon. A Baptist minister from Albany, NY, Magoon was actively engaged as both an art collector and theorist. Magoon amassed a collection of 3000 paintings, many of which were direct commissions from Church, Durand, Cole, Cropsey, and others.  At the same time, he advanced his own theories on the art of landscape paint through his compilation The Homebook of the Picturesque, which included a grouping of essays by himself and such distinguished authors as James Fennimore Cooper and Washington Irving alongside illustrations of American scenery by Kensett, Weir, Gignoux, Cropsey and other of his favorite landscape painters. He published the volume in 1851 and dedicated it to Asher B. Durand.

In addition to advancing his aesthetic agenda, Magoon also served an important role as a trustee of Vassar College and was appointed by the founder Matthew Vassar to be the chairman of the committee charged with establishing the school’s art gallery. Shortly after, Matthew Vassar journeyed to Albany to see Magoon’s collection, which he purchased and installed as the basis of the college collection, now known as one of the finest in the country.

It was this assortment of Magoon’s treasures of the Hudson River School which were small and precious in scale, which I encountered as a student of Vassar, in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Gallery, that encouraged me as a student to study the Hudson River School and eventually dedicate my career to uncovering its hidden gems.

I realize that it is difficult to approach the collecting of Hudson River School paintings in the same manner as Reed, Sturges and Magoon, but there are clues and insights we can gleam from their appreciation of the movement and I’d like to outline them as follows:

  1.  To approach the movement holistically and understand the ideas behind the forms. Hone your vision to discern in the landscapes the aesthetic categories of the sublime, picturesque, and beautiful.
  2. Get to know each of the artists intimately through a comprehensive study of his or her body of work, know their favorite subjects, and their best years of production.
  3. Read the surrounding literature of the period, the prose and poetry, to gain insight into the aesthetic ideas that inspired the artists most and understand the various dimensions of their artistic agenda.
  4. Visit the sites they depicted, as their passion for the landscape is infectious and the best collections are born with passion and a keenness of vision.
Portrait Image Credits: 1.)”Asher B. Durand: Jonathan Sturges”. http://www.artchive.com/web_gallery/A/Asher-Brown-Durand/Jonathan-Sturges.html  ; 2.) “Asher B. Durand: Luman Reed (63.36)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/63.36 (October 2009); 3.) “Elias Magoon”. A Brief Guide to Vassar’s Charter Trustees. Vassar College, 2004. http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/trustees/a-brief-guide-to-vassars-charter-trustees.html

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