Hudson River an artistic muse for centuries

March 16, 2009 at 1:45 pm 1 comment

The Hudson River is thing of undeniable beauty. A century and a half ago, it was the inspiration for British-born landscape painter Thomas Cole, who responded with canvas after canvas that captured its natural splendor in luminous, almost religious visions.
In turn, Cole led a parade of like-minded painters whose artistic style became known worldwide as the Hudson River School. It was America’s first and arguably most important movement of landscape art, celebrating the river in all of its natural glory. Frederic Edwin Church, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Albert Bierstadt, John Frederick Kensett and Asher Durand were just a few of the many painters who were held spellbound by the beauty of the Hudson and its environs in the mid-1800s.

Today, as we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the river’s discovery by its namesake, Henry Hudson, the Hudson River continues to inspire artists, including Len Tantillo, who lives near the river in Rensselaer County.

“The Hudson River School was an artistic celebration of the magnificence of the Hudson River Valley landscape,” he says. “A lot of those painters responded to the landscape in a spiritual fashion. They made people really appreciate the beauty of the Hudson River Valley because of the way they could handle color and drama.”

The Hudson River School painters focused on nature, while minimalizing the impact of the Industrial Age. “Yes, they idealized the landscape, but the remarkable thing is that the landscape is still there,” Tantillo insists. “When you travel the Hudson River from here to New York City, you’re taken by the number of places along the river that really haven’t changed all that much in the century and a half that has passed since those paintings were done.”

“You can see the influence of the Hudson River School in quite a few artists today, not just landscape painters,” he says.

Tantillo’s own paintings focus on New York state, with an emphasis on the Hudson River. “But one of the main differences between my work and the paintings of the 19th century is that I tend to focus on the kinds of things that they weren’t interested in the kinds of things that they, in fact, avoided. While they were more focused on nature, I’m more interested in the man-made environment around the river. What I hope to do with the body of work that I’ve produced is to give people a sense of the evolution of the past 400 years and to make people more aware of the changes that have happened along the river for better or worse. And that’s an ongoing story.”

Jane Bloodgood-Abrams is one of the contemporary artists carrying on the traditions of Cole and his compatriots, imbuing a luminous, spiritual quality to her Hudson River paintings.

“I feel a real connection to those artists who lived and painted here so long ago,” she readily admits. “The dramatic light and expansive views captured in so many of their works is a real parallel to what I witness in the area still, and it inspires my work.”

Today, she lives in Kingston and can walk to the river from her studio. “Even though I grew up here, I had a sort of awakening to the Hudson River Valley. I began spending more time in the mountains and along the river, reconnecting to my spirituality.
“I love being in the river swimming, on the river in a boat or standing on a high bluff overlooking the Hudson as it winds away from me,” says Bloodgood-Abrams. “I think that any artist who is living in the Hudson Valley is in somewhat affected by the river, by the light no matter the style or medium.”
Although composer Annea Lockwood was born nearly 9,000 miles away in New Zealand, she knows the Hudson River more intimately than most of us who have spent our whole lives near its banks. During 1980 and 1981, Lockwood explored the length of the Hudson, stopping at various locations to collect tape-recorded sound samples of the river. Commissioned by the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, she wove together the recordings into a captivating two-hour audio installation, “A Sound Map of the Hudson River,” part of the museum’s “Riverama” exhibit.

She had collected river recordings since the mid-’60s, but “A Sound Map of the Hudson” was the first time that she tackled an entire river from top to bottom, from the Hudson’s source at Lake Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondacks to its terminus in New York harbor.

“Each stretch of the Hudson has its own unique sonic texture, formed by the terrain, varying according to the weather, the season and, downstream, the human environment, whose sounds are intimately woven into the river’s sounds,” Lockwood says. “Tracing one single river was really fascinating. There’s such a tremendous variety of sounds to the Hudson.”

Lockwood has installed “A Sound Map of the Hudson River” at locations around the world from New Zealand to England, and the University at Albany will be hosting it in October.

Composer-violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain also has drawn musical inspiration from the Hudson River. Last April, he premiered a new 23-minute composition “Soundtrack for a Shared Dream” at The Egg, which commissioned the work. His six-part tale of a town along the Hudson in which residents have shared dreams about what he calls “USOs or unidentified submerged objects” was inspired by the proposal to build the St. Lawrence Cement plant on the banks of the Hudson.

“The environmental issues became very important to what I was trying to do with the piece, which is really about the future of the river and our relationship to it as New Yorkers and, really, even as a country,” he says.

Roumain, who has lived near the Hudson in Harlem for 10 years, is performing the piece again this month and will stop at the Albany Institute of History & Art at 2 p.m. today to deliver a lecture about his composition.
“As a Haitian-American composer, bodies of works have always been a very important part of my life,” explains Roumain, whose music bridges the gulf between classical and hip-hop. “So it was very natural for me to consider the possibilities and the consequences of the future of the Hudson River. The piece is about what the river has meant to us historically and what it means to us today as we continue to figure out our relationship to and the importance of the Hudson River in our daily lives.”
Greg Haymes may be reached at 454-5742 or by e-mail at
Arts events

Here are a few events at the Albany Institute of History & Art (125 Washington Ave., Albany) regarding the Hudson River’s influence on art and artists:

2 p.m. today: Lecture and demonstration by musician-composer Daniel Bernard Roumain on “Composing for the River: Soundtrack for a Shared Dream”

1 p.m. Sunday, March 29: Hudson River Panorama Family Festival, featuring storyteller Jonathan Kruk, folksinger Rich Bala, more

5:30 p.m. Friday, April 3: Gallery talk by photographer Harry Wilks on his exhibit, “Hudson Valley: Spanning the Banks”

2 p.m. Sunday, April 19: Lecture by artist Len Tantillo on “Painting the Valley: History and Process”

6 p.m. Friday, May 1: Lecture by artist-mapmaker Connie Brown on “The Hudson and Its Watershed: The Making of a Map”

6 p.m. Friday, June 5: Lecture by artist Anne Diggory on “Artistic License and Artistic Truth”

2 p.m. Sunday, June 14: Lecture and performance by author-folksinger Jerry Silverman on “New York Sings”

Note: For more information about these upcoming programs, please contact the institute at 463-4478 or

Times Union


Entry filed under: Dive In, Natural Waterfront, Region. Tags: , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Bill K.  |  March 16, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    Hello Greg

    Thanks for the arts info. Can you help with a sports & fitness item? I heard that the Hudson River towns were master-planned to be linked by a network of bicycle and jogging trails. If so, it would become a world-class fitness destination — biking and jogging during warm weather and snowshoeing and XC skiing during bad weather. So can you do a bit of research on this potential boon for the River communities? Thanks!

    Bill K,
    from Guilderland, NY (no bikes allowed there), and Athens, NY (much more bike friendly)


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