Exhuming the women of the Hudson River School

Image: Summer Landscape, 1869, Julie Hart Beers

Artists, if you're seeking to toil in obscurity and ensure that your work lies neglected for centuries, here's how to do it: 1. Be a woman. 2. Paint trees.

Such has been the fate of the women of the Hudson River School, left out of the history books not only by mainstream art historians but even by feminist art scholars. But the art world is slowly realizing what they've been missing: An exhibit running through October at the Thomas Cole Historic Site, "Remember the Ladies: Women of the Hudson River School," celebrates these painters who struggled despite limited education and fierce social disapproval to make their work. (One even had her drawings burned by a wicked stepmother.)

Smithsonian magazine has a story about the exhibit:

Though their paintings were largely left out of the story of American art, the exhibition displays work that reflects the same romantic sensibility, respect for balance, luminosity and love of picturesque landscapes as those of artists like Cole, Asher B. Durand and Frederic Church. “These paintings aren’t particularly feminine; they’re not flowery,” [Thomas Cole Historic Site director Elizabeth] Jacks says. “If you walked into the show, you’d just say these are a group of Hudson River school paintings. They are part of the movement. It’s our own problem that we haven’t included them in the history of the Hudson River school.”...

...According to Jacks, visitors to the show are amazed by the quality achieved by artists wholly unfamiliar to them. “The number one question we’ve been asked is ‘why hasn’t anyone done this before?’ I don’t know how to answer that,” she says.

Buoyed by the show's success, curators Nancy Siegel and Jennifer Krieger are working on a much more ambitious goal: Bringing the forgotten artists into the mainstream history of the Hudson River School. A commenter on the story notes that Siegel and Krieger face an uphill battle -- not because the long-dead artists they're promoting are female, but because they're landscape painters.

As Dobrzynski observes, its curators “have set themselves the enormous goal of rewriting a chapter in American art history,” of “ensuring that these women become part of the American art narrative.” It will not be easy to accomplish that goal, however, given the state of today’s culture. Landscape painters working in the Hudson River tradition in recent years, for example, have been largely ignored by the artworld, which overwhelmingly favors so-called contemporary art. It remains to be seen if Siegel and Krieger can succeed in such an environment.