American Art

Masters of the Hudson River School

By Colton Klein

S otheby's American Art sale on 19 November features an impressive grouping of Hudson River School paintings, led by Frederic Edwin Church's South American Landscape. Influenced by Alexander von Humboldt's seminal publication Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, Church sought to expose the American public to the wonders of the South American tropics and the spiritual qualities of the natural world. These intentions were squarely in line with the larger objectives of Hudson River School artists, as set forth by the movement's progenitor Thomas Cole. South American Landscape is a hallmark of Church's most triumphant naturalistic paintings. Here, the artist's exacting scientific detail serves as a visual documentary of Church's own awesome regard for the diverse environments of the American continents.

FREDERIC EDWIN CHURCH, SOUTH AMERICAN LANDSCAPE, 1857. Estimate $1,500,000 – 2,500,000.

Albert Bierstadt's Estes Park, Colorado similarly pushed the boundaries of Hudson River School painting in its depiction of the largely untraveled American frontier. Bierstadt's grand portrayals of these national terrains were highly sought-after by patrons willing to pay record prices for his spectacular canvases. The scholar Edgar Preston Richardson noted that "Bierstadt was one – and one of the best – of those who discovered the grandeur of the American West and made our nation aware of it" (Painting in America, New York, 1956, p. 230). Learning from Church's heroic paintings like South American Landscape, Bierstadt's 1867 painting conveys the romanticism which endured at the heart of exploration and Manifest Destiny. The scholar Gordon Hendricks commented, "It was in 1864 that Bierstadt came up to, equaled, and some said, surpassed Frederic E. Church as America's most celebrated landscapist" (Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West, 1974, p. 140).

ALBERT BIERSTADT, ESTES PARK, COLORADO, 1867. Estimate $500,000 – 700,000.

The sale also features two exceptional examples of John Frederick Kensett's forays into the Luminist idiom, Lake George and Sunset Over the Catskills. Preeminent scholar John I.H. Baur first coined the term "Luminism" in 1954 to distinguish a group of Hudson River School artists for their unambiguously American consciousness of the effects of light and atmosphere. Art historians often herald Kensett as the master of Luminism among these 19th-century landscape painters, an accolade substantiated by the sublime quality of light that emanates from Lake George and Sunset Over the Catskills.

JOHN FREDERICK KENSETT, LAKE GEORGE, circa 1865. Estimate $100,000 – 150,000.

Sunset Over the Catskills has an especially fascinating ownership history. The work was once owned by Charles Callahan Perkins of Boston, Massachusetts. Perkins was an early founder of the Museum of Fine Arts and served as President of the Boston Art Club for ten years. He was the grandfather of the influential editor Maxwell Perkins, who would go on to discover some of the most prominent American writers of the first half of the 20th century, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.


In addition to these esteemed Hudson River School paintings, Sotheby's American Art sale will present a diverse group of 19th and 20th-century landscape paintings that span the American continents. The auction will take place in New York at 10:00 AM EDT; registration is now open.

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