Composing a Landscape

The Hudson River artists grappled with how to accurately depict the sheer grandeur of the American landscape, and their solutions were varied. Frederic Church (1826-1900) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), for example often painted on huge canvases, a tradition continued today.

If you select a large canvas, it’s particularly effective to provide something for viewers both near and far. A favorite device of the Hudson River painters was to paint a breathtakingly expansive scene best viewed from a distance, all the while providing interesting details in the low foreground for viewers who come in close.

The Hudson River painters found other inventive ways to accurately express scope. A couple of their favorites include these:

  • Going wider. John Frederick Kensett and Martin Johnson Heade demonstrated that it isn’t necessary to use physical size to express space. These painters chose to use smaller canvases with wide horizontal proportions to capture a panoramic-like splendor, such as in Heade’s Newburyport Marhses: Approaching Storm.
  • Framing with foreground. To express panoramic views and add a feeling of expansiveness, the Hudson River painters used the foreground, often elevated, as a frame to look into a broad expanse of landscape and distances. This viewpoint has been especially effective for some of today’s painters depicting broad, gently rolling farmland.
  • Getting intimate. Another, although atypical, compositional device of the Hudson River painters was to put the viewer into an intimate portion of the landscape. Initially the painters thought of this as painting within God’s "church of nature," such as in Asher B. Durand’s Woodland Glen.

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