Painted in 1872, Francis Augustus Silva’s Sailing on the Hudson near Nyack depicts a broad view of the Hudson River Palisades and Hook Mountain near Nyack, New York as viewed from the Hudson River. New York’s early Dutch settlers referred to Hook Mountain as Verdrietige Hook, or “tedious point,” due to the forceful gusts of winds that sailors encountered while traveling through this region of the river. The present work dates to a period of exceptional output for Silva, who traveled frequently from New Jersey to Massachusetts in search of desirable subject matter. Art historian Mark D. Mitchell writes, “By far the most famous of Silva’s themes from this early period was not formal, but geographic: The Hudson River…his Hudson River scenes are his most charming and effective early works…The correspondence between the Hudson River and the quality of these paintings is virtually inexplicable, as they stand apart aesthetically from his other work of the early 1870s. Perhaps the phenomenon is best explained simply as a serendipitous consequence of time and geography of Silva’s concurrent artistic maturation and awareness of his Hudson River School predecessors on their turf” (Francis A. Silva: In His Own Light, New York, 2002, pp. 33-34).
Sailing on the Hudson near Nyack represents one of Silva’s most successful forays in the Luminist idiom. Preeminent scholar John I.H. Baur first coined the term “Luminism” in 1954 to distinguish a group of Hudson River School artists, including Silva, Martin Johnson Heade, and Fitz Henry Lane, among others, for their unambiguously American consciousness of the effects of light and atmosphere. In her discussion of the distinct characteristics of the Luminist movement, the art historian Barbara Novak writes, “Luminist light tends to be cool, not hot, hard not soft, palpable rather than fluid, planar rather than atmospherically diffuse. Luminist light radiates, gleams, and suffuses on a different frequency than atmospheric light…Air cannot circulate between the particles of matter that comprise Luminist light” (Nature and Culture, London, 1980, pp. 18, 29).
The eastern seaboard, specifically the Hudson River Valley, was a favored subject of Luminist painters, who were attracted to the region’s clear light and relatively undeveloped shores. In Sailing on the Hudson, Nyack, Silva deliberately heightened the atmospheric effects of sunlight to convey the transcendent qualities of the natural world and man’s spiritual relationship to the physical environment.