“First freedom, then glory; when that fails, wealth, vice, corruption.” Originally penned by Byron, the phrase was borrowed by Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole, who attached it to his series of paintings “The Course of Empire.”
The works, imbued with Cole’s political pessimism, track the cyclical pattern of empire versus nature through five dramatic landscape paintings that depict distinct states of transition. But while the individual works show the environment’s development from a lush, pastoral landscape to a grand urban empire and, ultimately, back to a natural state, one element remains constant in Cole’s renderings: the Hudson River.
Cole’s “The Course of Empire” is displayed prominently in the New-York Historical Society’s new exhibition, “Hudson Rising,” offering a sobering reminder of human impact on the river and calling attention to how it has inspired artistic interpretation over time. The show, which opens on March 1, utilizes a range of media — including Hudson River School paintings like Cole’s, rare books, drawings, scientific maps, documentary footage and even a tank of live striped bass — to explore 200 years of ecological change and activism along the Hudson, spanning from the industrial age to present day.
Curated by the New-York Historical Society’s vice president of history exhibitions, Marci Reavan, and Jeanne Haffner, associate curator, the exhibition progresses through five geographical sections and time periods: “Journeys Upriver: The 1800s,” “The Adirondacks: 1870s-1890s,” “The Palisades: 1890s-1950s,” “The Hudson Highlands: 1960s-1980s” and “A Rising Tide: Today.” Taken together, the sections document both how the river has shaped the landscape and how humans have, in turn, altered the river.
“This path-breaking exhibition explores ideas about the environment that developed in the context of the Hudson, examining how we became aware, as New Yorkers and as Americans, of the role that humans played in the river’s ecological degradation,” said Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical, in a statement. “The exhibit also looks at the strategies we devised to address it. Spanning the entire industrial era, Hudson Rising presents a compelling account of how the Hudson has been an incubator for our ideas about the environment and our relationships to the natural world for two centuries-plus.”
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The exhibition closes with a meditation on how experts believe the Hudson River and the land surrounding it will be affected by climate change. In the final gallery space, a vacillating wave of blue and purple water washes over a large-scale breakwater model created by the landscape architecture firm SCAPE (the designers are behind the $60 million dollar project Living Breakwaters, led by the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery).
The model, Reavan said, is “an effort to say at the end of this show, yes, there are incredible challenges that face us, but as we’ve seen through many of the sections in the exhibit, there is also incredible capacity to work together and talent out there to try to come up with solutions to the challenges we face.”
“We hope that people take that message with them,” she added.
“Hudson Rising” is on view at the New-York Historical Society from March 1 through Aug. 4.
Top Image: Thomas Cole's "The Course of Empire: Desolation," 1833-1836. Courtesy of New-York Historical Society