History of Trauma in Environmental Art: A Short Introduction to the Hudson River School

At some point, hopefully in the next few weeks, a kind USPS delivery person will hand over my diploma from York University. Over the past two years I have been working on my Master of Arts in the History of Art degree, where I have focused on the history of trauma in the life of Joseph Beuys.

The mere act of earning my degree was a rollercoaster—from immigrating to a new country, my apartment building catching fire, the ever impending doom of COVID-19, and completing most of my degree from a country away. But today, I have completed all of my coursework, submitted my MRP, and now I’m just waiting for my diploma to arrive in the mail.

Today, I want to introduce you to my major topic of research and in subsequent posts I’ll give you all of the juicy details from two years of research.

Let’s go!

The legacy of environmental art is as old as art itself, and can be traced back to Paleolithic cave paintings and drawings. In order to keep my sanity, my research only considered artists using the land for inspiration in North America and Europe since the mid-1800s.

Since the colonization of the Americas, Europeans thought that the environment of the continent needed to be controlled. Colonizers aimed to tame and subdue the natural world. Differing from Indigenous communities, the colonizers built cities and community structures that harmed the landscape, and through their mere presence traumatized the Indigenous communities throughout the Americas through forced labor, relocation, spread of deadly disease as well as ecological destruction.

The Hudson River School painters documented the colonization and Modernization of the northeastern region of the United States. Working from 1825 to 1875, painters associated with the Hudson River School produced paintings that provided Americans with an “attractive self-image, a shared political identity and a reflection of their desire for moral and religious truths.” Inspired by the Catskill Mountains, the Adirondacks, Lake George, and the Hudson River, primarily as a means to transport paintings to the art market in New York City, the Hudson River painters used their canvases to deliver allegorical narratives about mid-century life in New York. The group valued close observation of nature and precision of details.

Thomas Cole, Destruction, 1834, oil on canvas.

Acclaimed founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole’s (1801-1848) The Course of an Empire (1833-1836)series tells the allegorical narrative of the rise and fall of an empire, with the underlying message that pastoralism was the ideal phase of human civilization. Works like Cole’s and the rest of the Hudson River School spread appealing images and ideas as propaganda and justification for the traumatization of Indigenous communities. These paintings normalized the idea that Indigenous communities were “savage” or “primitive” and needed a helping hand, which was conveniently provided by the European colonists who promptly murdered, relocated, or inflicted other wounds on these communities.

The Salvage Paradigm was coined by early twentieth century anthropologist Jacob W. Gruber and refers to the necessity to preserve so-called weaker cultures so that their culture is not fully lost, but not favored in mainstream society.[1] The Hudson River School perpetuated this idea in their paintings. However, non-Native colonizers like the Hudson River School painters robbed Indigenous peoples of their past and their future through exploitation of their culture and redefining Indigenous identities in terms that their audience (of mostly European ancestry) would accept. Moreover, this principle does not allow for Indigenous communities to publicly claim their own heritage in terms of the legacy that has been passed down, as oftentimes their legacy has been muddled with the white man’s idea of who they should be.[2] The trauma of the land and Indigenous communities in the West can be further exemplified through the idea of Indigenous Place Thought, “which is based upon the premise that land is alive and thinking and that humans and non-humans derive agency through extensions of these thoughts.”[3] If Indigenous histories are considered to be manifested in place, then their agency and spirit exist in all things and are related to one another and the collective story of our planet. Therefore, ecological devastation is an act of violence against not only humans, but all living creatures as well as the land itself.

[1] Jacob W. Gruber, “Ethnographic Salvage and the Shaping of Anthropology,” American Anthropologist 72 no. 6 (1970): 1294.

[2] Stephen Warren and Ben Barnes, “Salvaging the Salvage Anthropologists: Erminie Wheeler-Coegelin, Carl Voegelin and the Future of Ethenohistory,” Journal of the American Society for Ethnography 65, no. 2 (April 2018): 189-191.

[3] Zoe Todd, “Indigenizing the Anthropocene,” in Art of the Anthropocene, ed. Heather Davis and Etinne Turpin (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015): 245-246.

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