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Hudson River Valley landscapes highlight Flo Gris exhibition

By Kristina Dorsey

Publication: The Day

Published September 01. 2012 4:00AM
Thomas Cole's "Button Wood Tree," 1823, pen and dark brown ink, over traces of pencil, on off-white paper.

Devotees of the Florence Griswold Museum are familiar with glorious, impressionistic visions of Connecticut, painted by Lyme Art Colony artists. The latest exhibition at the museum takes a look at another artistically renowned region: the Hudson River Valley.

"On Hudson: Highlights from the Albany Institute of History and Art" is part of an exchange between the Flo Gris and the Albany Institute of History & Art. Each is showing work from the other's collections, detailing a region's artistic heritage.

The Albany museum runs "Artistic Impressions: American Paintings from the Florence Griswold Museum" from Sept. 15 to Jan. 20.

The Albany Institute gave Amy Kurtz Lansing, curator at the Florence Griswold Museum, carte blanche to select pieces from its collection. She says the idea was to "really look for works that would have a big impact but would also give people a sense of what the distinctive culture of the Hudson Valley is - the Dutch heritage, the Hudson River School and just the river itself as an inspiration for art."

Indeed, wrapped up in the exhibition is a wealth of material covering years and years, with pieces from Dutch settlers, paintings by famed Hudson River School artists, and works by modern-day artists.

The Albany museum - which, at 221 years, is one of the oldest public museums in the country - possesses one of the most impressive collection of Hudson River School works in the U.S. Hudson River School artists like Thomas Cole and Frederic E. Church created epic wilderness landscapes that, in a way, helped to define America's identity.

Kurtz Lansing says the exhibition explores "the way (those works) have shaped how we think about the American landscape. When we look at those Hudson River School pictures, they seem so quintessentially American to us, and yet they're really pictures of a specific place. We have to remind ourselves, yes, we're looking at the Hudson Valley, at the Adirondacks."

Those paintings helped change the way Americans thought about the wilderness. During the 17th and 18th centuries, people saw nature as untamed and perilous, not necessarily something to be "admired for any intrinsic beauty," as the exhibition explains.

But some writers and painters began to view it differently, in terms of beauty and history.

"Before the Hudson River School, everybody had the idea that history was something that only Europe had. They looked at America and at nature and thought, it's kind of this raw stuff that's menacing and dangerous," Kurtz Lansing says. "They didn't realize there is great history - this kind of natural history - that is represented by our landscape. The Hudson River School painters gave Americans a way to recognize that, to appreciate what was grand and beautiful about nature here."

One of the artists, she adds, spoke about how the forests and mountains are America's castles and ruins.

The exhibition describes the Hudson River School as the first truly American art movement. The phrase "Hudson River School," though, wasn't necessarily a compliment at the beginning. It described older, primarily self-taught landscaspe artists. Since then, though, it's become the term used for a group of esteemed landscape painters starting with Cole in 1825 continuing till around 1875.

Flo Gris spotlights some majestic works by such famous Hudson River names as Cole and Church. Two of Church's that are paired up show how much drama he could bring to a sky. In "Morning, Looking East on the Hudson Valley," clouds catch the light, transforming into shades of soft rose. The sky in "Twilight (Sunset)" delves into even deeper reds and oranges.

"On Hudson" also showcases works by Cole - paintings, of course, but also some of his drawings, such as an 1823 pen-and-dark-brown-ink one of a gnarled button wood tree. It's his earliest dated drawing from nature. Cole and some of his fellow Hudson River School painters were among the first American artists to recognize the importance of en plein air - meaning in the open air - sketching.

The modern pieces in the "On Hudson" give a striking glimpse at what the Hudson River School has inspired over time. Stephen Hannock's 2001 "Nocturne for the River Keeper, Green Light" concentrates on a darkly mysterious mountain, with a few dots of light emanating near the shore and reflecting off the water below. Hannock's paintings are renowned for their luminosity, which he created by using electric sanders to polish paintings between layers of oil paint and resin.

Bill Sullivan's 1990 "Twilight at Olana" is a landscape, too, but it's a riot of color. Clouds burst with hot reds and almost neon oranges and yellows, above a black landscape. (The Olana of the title, by the way, was Church's home.)

Kurtz Lansing notes that Sullivan started out as an abstract painter, but he was moved by Church's pictures. So much so, in fact, that he found a way to use color like an abstract artist would but also to tap into the exhilirating power that landscapes can have.

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IF YOU GO

What: "On Hudson: Highlights from the Albany Institute of History and Art"

Where: Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme

When: Through Sept. 23; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat. and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.

Admission: $14 adults, $13 seniors, $12 students, $5 members, free kids 12 and under

Contact: (860) 434-5542, flogris.org

Artist talk: Painter Don Nice, whose work "Bear Totem" is featured in "On Hudson," talks about his artistic career at 2 p.m. Sept. 6 at the Flo Gris. He brings a fresh vision to the American landscape tradition, often juxtaposing icons of pop culture with diverse images of flora and fauna. Admission to the talk is $7, $5 for members.

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