In staggering contrast to the rampant chicanery that American collectors encountered when venturing into the European field of art, the 19th century American field remained strangely pristine in terms of controversies over authenticity or lack thereof. Not that the Americans were angels but really there was no opportunity for mischief as this had to do with the rise, fall and much delayed rise again of the Hudson River School, born circa 1825 and at its apex by 1860 only to fall into hard times then complete obscurity post Civil War, not to return to prominence until the 1970’s when the modern environmental movement seized upon it as a standard of a cleaner era, all the while grass roots musical artists like the Band, Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers made it respectable to be a redneck again, thus bringing out the rustic landscapes from the attic and museums storerooms where they had been consigned to neglect for a lengthy stay in purgatory.
Many of these artists, Anglo Americans such as Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Sanford Gifford (1823-1880), Frederick Church (1826-1900), Jasper Cropsey (1823-1900), John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872) and Louis Remy Mignot (1831-1870) spent extensive time in England, so their works still turn up in Britain as well, however ignored they may have been beforehand. Jasper Cropsey (1823-1900) specifically painted Autumn on the Hudson in 1860 while living in London for the British market. While on display at a gallery in Pall Mall, critics were so incredulous that Cropsey felt forced to display some red maple leaves glued on cardboard to prove such foliage indeed existed in the New world. Frederic Church’s painting, Niagara Falls from the American Side, 1867, remains in the National Galleries of Scotland. However the most famous case of one of these works reappearing in Britain was the long lost Frederic Edwin Church canvas, “Icebergs of the North” which had sold to British M.P. Sir Edward Watkin (1819-1901 circa 1865, only to be rediscovered in the attic of Watkin’s former home Rose Hill near Manchester, UK, long after it became a school for boys in 1979. One of Church’s largest canvases, when “Icebergs” was brought down to London it was dismissed by Sotheby’s local expert as a primitive copy of a Turner, fortunately the head of Sotheby-Parke Bernet’s, the American branch operation, John Marion was in London during this episode and he quickly realized it to be the lost masterpiece. Icebergs, a discovery in a British attic, later went to sell at auction for more than $3 million, breaking the million dollar mark, a glass ceiling that had held back the value of American 19th century paintings as perceived in the buyers eye.
To many the hangover of a hundred years’ worth of neglect continued, paintings that resurfaced often were given incorrect titles utterly irrelevant of the locations they were known to depict, with the best example of that being the Brooklyn Museum’s painting by Francis Silva, “Tappan Zee, 1876,” which was one of the most popular paintings of the 1987 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “American Paradise, the World of the Hudson River School. Despite its’ extreme popularity at the Metropolitan museum of Art’s blockbuster show, the Silva did not depict the Tappan Zee, instead its location was almost a hundred miles north showing Esopus Meadows Lighthouse with the Catskill Mountains in the background. Does this sound trivial? Maybe, but as we revisit a lost school of art identifying the subject matter is critical to re-piecing period exhibition records, identifying important paintings when they were done and where they were painted. Once even a lay person, a non art dealer sees a dozen works by artists of the same area, combined with modern photos of the same locations, they finally key in on the artist’s style, his personality.
That trait is more idiosyncratic than an obvious signature, which is why this writer curated an exhibition titled Reflections Renewed last year at Boscobel Restorations in Garrison, NY across the Hudson from West Point where these important Hudson River School images might be seen in their modern context, not only to set the record straight to where they were done, but to allow the average person a chance at entering the artist’s head and understand his creative process, thus comprehend that most elusive ethereal word of all, their style. In this day of GoogleArt, high definition images can be downloaded quickly to match up with other known images, if this writer could spot something funny with a local museum’s van Gogh, perhaps a reader of this column might get lucky after viewing the following online exhibition of Hudson River School Artists and discover one of their works in the UK. Jasper Cropsey, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, Sanford Gifford, Louis Mignot, Albert Bierstadt, and John Frederick Kensett, they all painted in Britain, and more importantly some of their major works sold there too, a long time ago.