Wednesday, November 12, 2014

New York State History Month: Picturesque Views of the Hudson River Valley

Picturesque Views, ca. 1829-1836
The plates and platters featured in this week’s journey through New York State on transferware are part of the “Picturesque Views” series by James Clews (who brought us Lafayette’s landing last week). These three pieces depict towns on the Hudson River: West Point (sepia), Newburgh (blue), and Fishkill (black). The source for all the “picturesque views” (twenty in all) is a series of prints engraved by John Hill after watercolors by William Guy Wall, called the Hudson River Port Folio, issued between 1821 and 1825.

Clews, Near Fishkill, Hudson River

William Guy Wall was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1792 and came to the United States in 1818. He studied art with John Rubens Smith, and in the summer of 1820, the two took a trip up the Hudson River, reaching as far north as Luzerne. In 1821, a prospectus appeared in newspapers in major American cities, offering readers the chance to subscribe to the Hudson River Port Folio, “containing twenty-four views of the north river, selected by W. G. Wall, during a tour in the summer of 1820, and painted by him in his best manner, and with a faithful attention to nature. To be engraved by J. R. Smith, in aquatint, in a manner peculiarly adapted to represent highly finished drawings.”

W. G. Wall, View Near Fishkill
The Port Folio was to be issued in six volumes of four prints each, “carefully coloured under the immediate inspection of Mr. Wall.” The prints would be enhanced by descriptions of the scenes, written by the novelist John Agg, who had accompanied Wall and Smith on their tour. Whenever possible, “this literary accompaniment will be enriched with historical narrative, so that the scene and chronicle of glorious achievement will be transmitted, side by side, to posterity.”

Clews, West Point, Hudson River

Smith began the engraving process, but was soon replaced on the project by John Hill, a London-born engraver who had achieved fame for his work on Joshua Shaw’s Picturesque Views of American Scenery, the first large-format color-plate book printed in America (1820). The sixth number of the Port Folio was never produced, making a total of five parts with four prints each, issued once per year. Each number cost $16.00, making it well beyond the reach of most Americans—indeed, it’s likely that many more people would have been familiar with Wall’s views through their reproduction on ceramics than through the original prints.

W. G. Wall, West Point
The Hudson River had played an important role in American life since colonial days, when it supported the fur trade and brought grain and timber to New York City. In 1807, water transportation was dramatically changed when Robert Fulton introduced the first steamboat, the North River (popularly known as the Clermont), which could make the trip from New York to Albany in 36 hours. Then, when the Erie Canal opened in 1825, connecting the Hudson with the Great Lakes, river traffic experienced a second boom.

Clews, Newburgh, Hudson River

W. G. Wall, Newburg
In the 1820s, the Hudson River became a destination for tourists from both the United States and Europe. Visitors traveled on it en route to Saratoga Springs, the Adirondacks, and Niagara Falls, but it was also a destination in its own right. The resort hotels of the Catskills and the Revolutionary War sites around West Point were popular tourist spots, but the biggest draw was the region’s natural scenery. The sight of majestic mountains as backdrops to the bustling and prosperous river towns was particularly pleasing to 19th-century viewers. All of Wall’s views combined elements of civilization and commerce (sawmills, steamboats, wagons, churches) with natural wonders like mountains and waterfalls.

Many artists and writers found themselves drawn to the Hudson River as they searched for ways to create a new cultural identity for the nation. The role that the river had played in New York’s unique Dutch history, the Revolutionary War, and the opening of the Erie Canal, all provided exciting subjects for historians and writers of fiction like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. The English artist Thomas Cole traveled by steamship up the Hudson River in 1825 and painted his first Catskill Mountain landscapes. Cole and the other artists who were inspired by the natural beauty of the region came to be known as the Hudson River School. Like Wall (who might really be seen as the pioneer in this area), these artists tended to juxtapose the pastoral beauty of the cultivated landscape with more rugged, sublime manifestations of nature. Hudson River School artists also saw the hand of God in nature, and believed that the beauty of the American landscape was a sign of divine favor.

For the final leg of our journey through New York State, we’ll be visiting another natural wonder—Niagara Falls—and a man-made marvel—the Erie Canal.


Philip J. Weimerskirch, “Two Great Illustrated Books about the Hudson River: William Guy Wall’s Hudson River Port Folio and Jacques Gérard Milbert’s Itinéraire pittoresque du fleuve Hudson,” in Adirondack Prints and Printmakers: The Call of the Wild.

Ellouise Baker Larsen, American Historical Views on Staffordshire China, 3rd. edition (Dover Publications, 1975)

A Hudson River Portfolio, a New York Public Library online exhibit

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