A Brief History of Art in the Hudson Valley

This year’s edition of Upstate Art Weekend, spotlighting over 130 art organizations, galleries, museums, residencies, and creative projects in celebration of the Hudson Valley’s robust arts community, officially begins today, July 21. While it’s no secret that “upstate” New York (which, by the way, any local would argue is definitively not Rockland or Westchester, but I digress) has a longtime reputation for attracting creative thinkers and visual artists, the Hudson Valley region’s history of arts and culture stretches far beyond the select participants in this weekend’s event — from Native craft traditions to the influence of Augusta Savage to Kate Millet’s Art Colony for Women.

Before Dutch colonizers decimated many of the preexisting Native communities of the area and forced remaining survivors west to reservation land, the valley of the Muhheacannituck, also known as the Hudson River, was the longtime homeland of numerous Indigenous groups including the Munsee Lenape, the Muh-he-con-neok, and the Kanien’kehá:ka, whose roots in the region can be traced back as far as 12,000 years ago. In these communities, day-to-day practices included ancient basketry, pottery, instrument and tool making, and clothing construction.

Guerrilla Girls, “Guerrilla Girls Reality Check: The Hudson River School” (2023), ink on vinyl, 88 x 52 inches (© Guerrilla Girls; image courtesy Thomas Cole National Historic Site)

In the 1800s, the sublime scenery of the Catskills and picturesque river views served as transcendental muses for environmental artist Thomas Cole and his fratty fleet of Hudson River School painters. These artists created detailed landscape works displaying both realistic and idealistic portrayals of nature and rural scenes. Inspired by the godliness of the region’s rugged wilderness, their art reflected an era in the United States that romanticized discovery and exploration in a way that paralleled since-disavowed notions of White westward expansion. These harmful colonialist ideologies that exacerbated stereotypes about Indigenous culture and land continued to be confronted in contemporary artwork. Multimedia artist Wendy Red Star, a member of the Apsáalooke Tribe, uses a research-based practice combined with humor and primary source imagery to challenge these stereotypes.

Furthermore, although the legacy of the River School movement is largely remembered as dominated by White men, several historically underrepresented painters who were women had an enormous influence on its development, including the adventurous mountain climber Susie Barstow, Eliza Pratt Greatorex, Harriet Cany Peale, as well as Cole’s own sister Sarah Cole and her daughter Emily. Their works are currently on view at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill as part of the exhibition Women Reframe American Landscape, which runs through October 29.

Susie Barstow, “Untitled” (1868), oil on canvas, 6 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches (image courtesy Thomas Cole National Historic Site)

Storm King Art Center opened in 1960, initially intended as a museum for the River School paintings before quickly evolving into a major open-air sculpture venue that spans approximately 500 acres and houses one of the country’s largest collections of contemporary outdoor sculptures.

The region also drew other communities of creatives and freethinkers searching for pastoral refuge — sometimes at the cost of displacing existing communities. During the late 1800s, artist colonies began to emerge up and down the Hudson River as expanded railway transportation increased accessibility to the rural towns outside New York City. Cragsmoor and Bronxville’s Lawrence Park became cultural havens for city-based painters, musicians, and writers seeking fresh inspiration at the time.

In 1903, wealthy artists Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and Jane Byrd McCall alongside colleagues Bolton Brown and Hervey White founded Byrdcliffe, one of the oldest arts and crafts colonies in the US that is still operating today. An experimental arts utopia just outside Woodstock, Byrdcliffe featured over 30 arts buildings and galleries, a library, an art school, and a barn.

Whitehead frequently invited independent artisans and designers to the colony to engage in traditional craftwork, which included furniture, pottery, textiles, and metalwork. After his death, his son entrusted the arts commune with the Woodstock Guild of Craftsmen, who renamed it the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild. Over the years, the guild has hosted numerous visiting artists including Bob Dylan, Philip Guston, and Eva Hesse.

Byrdcliffe in 1909 (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most significant and lasting artistic legacies in the Hudson Valley is that of sculptor Augusta Savage, known for her portrait busts of prominent Black figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey as well as her work as a critical mentor and educator in the Harlem Renaissance. Her masterpiece “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (also called “The Harp,” a title she supposedly hated) was a 16-foot plaster sculpture commissioned for the New York World’s Fair of 1939. The work was demolished shortly after the event’s closing. In a period of personal financial stress and depression, Savage moved from Harlem to a farmhouse in Saugerties in 1945, where she lived until 1962. While working as a laboratory assistant at the K-B Products Corporation, Savage became involved in the local community as a summer youth arts educator. She continued to practice her artwork in her free time, sculpting friends, families, and tourists with clay and plaster, as she was unable to afford bronze. In 2001, Savage’s upstate house and studio was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Benjamin Wigfall, “Untitled (Christmas Card Design)” (1958), opaque watercolor on paper, 5 1/8 × 7 3/16 inches (image courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

In the mid-20th century, the Hudson Valley region increasingly became a hub for radical creatives. In 1978, the writer, artist, and activist Kate Millett and her partner Sophie Keir established the Women’s Art Colony Farm — a self-sufficient experimental artist commune in LaGrange that centered on collaboration, feminist discussion, and agrarian ways of living.

Financed by selling Christmas trees on Bowery Street, the colony, which was also often referred to as “The Farm,” welcomed many prominent feminist artists and activists, including Simone de Beauvoir, Barbara Hammer, Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneemann, and Gloria Steinem. In 2012, the colony registered as a nonprofit, and was renamed the Millett Center for the Arts.

Virginia-born painter and printmaker Benjamin Wigfall founded Communications Village during the early ’70s, transforming an abandoned mule barn into a studio that became a local hub for art making and mentorship. An artist whose work was primarily focused on Abstract Expressionism, Wigfall was the first Black arts educator at the nearby State University of New York at New Paltz.

He chose the barn as the site for his studio, which was located in Kingston’s working-class, primarily Black neighborhood of Ponckhockie. Through the rest of the decade and into the ’80s, Wigfall’s studio became a vibrant community printmaking space where Ponckhockie’s youth were able to learn from and assist prominent Black artists of the era whom Wigfall had invited to Kingston.

In 1974, a trio of wealthy arts patrons, dealers, and historians from New York City established the Dia Art Foundation, a nonprofit focused on the advancement of 1960s and ’70s artwork, as well as supporting arts initiatives and projects that may not otherwise receive funding due to their scale or scope. In 2003, the foundation opened its contemporary museum Dia Beacon along the banks of the Hudson River that currently features exhibitions of Rita McBride, Senga Nengudi, Louise Bourgeois, and others.

Today, the Hudson Valley is full of organizations, such as the Forge Project and the River Valley Arts Collective, that are dedicated to the evolution of the region’s art and culture community. Local groups continue to work to dismantle persevering colonialist power structures and uplift historically marginalized voices, as well as to preserve the lush natural areas that continue to draw artists from all over.

“For artists based in the city, we hunger for [the natural landscape] because it’s what we don’t have,” Queens-based artist Weihui Lu told Hyperallergic. A multidisciplinary artist whose work focuses on time, land, and loss, Lu recently presented “Requiem II” (2022), a fabric and wood installation during the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild’s artist residency 2022 exhibition.

“From the luxury of time, to the ability to rest and be fully present, being in the natural landscape embodies a different way of living,” Lu said.

Jasper Francis Cropsey, “Autumn – On the Hudson River” (1860), oil on canvas, 59 3/4 x 108 1/4 inches (image via Wikimedia Commons)
Wendy Red Star, “Fall” from Four Seasons (2006), archival pigment print on Sunset Fiber rag paper, 21×24 inches (image courtesy Thomas Cole National Historic Site, the artist and Sargent’s Daughters)

Maria Lewis

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