Scenic Hudson 50 Years

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The fiftieth anniversary of Scenic Hudson was celebrated yesterday with a magnificent exhibition in Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall. Twelve outstanding photographers from the Hudson Valley contributed their work that (to quote from the special brochure) “resonates with the organization’s mission and major achievements while also addressing the complex conservation challenges on the horizon.” The variety of content and artistic approaches displayed by these photographers was amazing–a tribute to the IMG_1721 sbeauty and sublimity of the Hudson Valley landscape and to the challenges that face Scenic Hudson in ensuring that this beauty and the ecological health of our region are preserved for all the future.    I would imagine that not since Robert Glenn Ketchum published his book The Hudson River & the Highlands has any photographer consistently documented, in an artistically compelling way, those conservation challenges the way Susan Wides and other artists in this exhibition have done. Susan’s work is inspired by the Hudson River landscape painters of the 19th century, and let’s not forget that the founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole, is considered one of the first spokespersons for the American conservationist movement.

And then there are the photographers who speak eloquently by capturing this beauty so as to remind us of what a treasure we have and, by implication, what we stand to lose if we don’t act with foresight.  As always, Beacon-based Robert Rodriguez Jr. is a very great favorite of mine, and I sometimes visit the RiverWinds Gallery there to treat my eyes (and my soul, dare I say) to his work on display.

Scenic Hudson is responsible for some sixty parks that they have created or enhanced, and I’m grateful to Metro-North Railroad, and toIMG_1725 s the fine-art photographic paper company Canson Infinity, who donated the paper on which the photos were printed, for bringing to the attention of the thousands of commuters who pass through Grand Central Station’s portals each day the fact that it’s Scenic Hudson they have to thank for so many of the places that they likely visit and enjoy on weekends. Just to name a few that I’ve actually visited: Burger Hill, Esopus Meadows Preserve, Foundry Dock Park, and Walkway over the Hudson. And in visiting their website I was delighted to learn that on Thursday October 24 they celebrated the opening of the new park at the West Point Foundry Preserve at Cold Spring. Rest assured, I’ll be blogging about this historically significant site before long.


Thomas Cole House Honors Art Historian Barbara Novak

Barbara Novak reflects on her distinguished career.

Barbara Novak reflects on her distinguished career.

Anyone seriously interested–and I don’t only mean professionals, but also people like me who are amateurs in the true sense of the word–in 19th-century American landscape painting owes a huge debt to Barbara Novak, whether or not they are even aware of it. As a doctoral student researching in Europe in the mid-1950s for her PhD dissertation on 15th-century Flemish art, Barbara Novak decided to defy convention and switch her topic to the Hudson River School artists Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand. Completing her dissertation in 1957, she joined the faculty of Barnard College the following year, and thus began a long and distinguished career of research, writing, teaching, and mentoring new research students, all of which compelled the art world to take seriously a topic that until then was virtually completely ignored. Her book trilogy Nature  and Culture: American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience, and now Voyages of the Self: Pairs, Parallels, and Patterns in American Art and Literature are classics in the field.

Elizabeth Jacks, Executive Director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, offers a welcome to the audience.

Elizabeth Jacks, Executive Director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, offers a welcome to the audience.

On Sunday April 14, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site honored Barbara Novak’s outstanding contributions to American art scholarship with a program in her honor, in which leading art scholars Ella M. Foshay, Annette Blaugrund, Adrienne Baxter Bell, and Karen Wilkin, along with literary scholar H. Daniel Peck and photographer Susan Wides each paid tribute to Dr. Novak and explained her influence on their own lives and careers. A true Renaissance woman, Dr. Novak is also a poet as well as a painter, and fifth-grader Isaac Barnes, the son of Thomas Cole Site Trustee David Barnes, read a selection of her poetry with stunning poise. Her husband, artist, author, and art critic Brian O’Doherty, was also on hand to pay special tribute to his remarkable wife–he referred to the “Barbara Diaspora”–“her students are everywhere.”

Brian O'Doherty, Dr. Novak's husband, said that no one can claim to have been more influenced by her than he!

Brian O’Doherty, Dr. Novak’s husband, said that no one can claim to have been more influenced by her than he!

Finally, Dr. Novak herself offered her own reflections on her life and career. A painter herself even before embarking on the academic study of art history, she was overwhelmed at the thought that her own paintings of flowers were now hanging in Thomas Cole’s house: “I hope he doesn’t mind,” she said. About Cole, whom she called “one of the great intellectual artists” in America, she commented that it’s impossible to exhaust his riches in a lifetime.

One has to admire not only the breadth and depth of learning and reflection Dr. Novak has brought to her chosen area of study over the years, but also the vision of the young doctoral student who, on a Fulbright grant in Europe, noted that “there were plenty of 15th-century Flemish scholars doing the same things over and over,” saw the potential in doing something new, and embarked on a lifetime study of the group she calls “my guys”–Cole, Durand, and their colleagues.

Isaac Barnes shows another side of Dr. Novak by reciting some of her poetry.

Isaac Barnes shows another side of Dr. Novak by reciting some of her poetry.

On Sunday April 28, one of the speakers at Dr. Novak’s tribute will take the podium in her own right: Annette Blaugrund, curator of the 2013 exhibition at the Thomas Cole Site Albert Bierstadt in New York & New England, will introduce the exhibition with a lecture at 2 pm. This is followed by a reception and open house from 3 to 4 pm. Why not take this opportunity to make the acquaintance of one of the leading exponents of the second generation of Hudson River School Artists?