There aren’t too many exhibitions that seem perfectly at home at the Nassau County Museum of Art, housed in a Georgian mansion that once belonged to the family of Henry Clay Frick, a founder of United States Steel.Skip to next paragraph Top, Frank Anderson’s “Breakneck Mountain, Hudson Highlands” (1878). Bottom, Thomas Moran’s “Long Island Landscape” (1902).
But the current exhibition of 30 late 19th-century Hudson River School paintings, “Poetic Journey: Hudson River School Paintings From the Grey Collection,” is one of them. The paintings are from the same era as the house, and they are domestic in scale, made to be hung in rooms like those at the museum.
The paintings belong to the Brookville-based collectors David and Laura Grey. They are a lovely group of pictures, acquired over many, many years with the kind of dedication, discernment and patience rarely found among private collectors. It was also shrewd buying, for these days it would be impossible to assemble a collection of similar quality and strength. On hand are works by most of the Hudson River School masters, including Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, George Inness and Thomas Cole.
I have previously reviewed portions of this collection at museums in Connecticut and Westchester, but it looks particularly good here. It sparkles, as much for the rare beauty as for the concentration of works from the pivotal decades of the 1850s and 1860s, when the second — and arguably the more talented and famous — generation of Hudson River School painters emerged after the death of Thomas Cole, the school’s founder.
The works are loosely arranged into several themes, around which the paintings in the collection tend to be clustered. Those in the first grouping are earlier than the rest and generally more classically inspired. Here you will find Cole’s “Tower by Moonlight” (1838), inspired by a richly descriptive narrative poem, “Love,” by the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Formally, however, it reminds you of the work of the 17th-century French neo-Classical painter Claude Lorrain.
Foliage and wilderness tend to dominate the second group, which contains several wonderful paintings. If I had to pick one to linger over, it would be Thomas Moran’s “Long Island Landscape” (1902), which, although significantly later than a lot of the other works here, reminds us of what Long Island once looked like. It is a bright painting of mature trees and thick underbrush along the banks of a stream, a study in the tranquil but rugged beauty of the Northeast coastal landscape.
From here the show detours into works by artists of the second generation of the Hudson River School that are associated with the Luminist movement in American art. Luminism is a mid-19th-century landscape painting style characterized by hazy effects of light and atmosphere and invisible brushwork. Notable examples here include the airy panoramas “An October Afternoon on the Juniata” (1879) by Sanford Robinson Gifford and “Arcadia” (circa 1850) by John Frederick Kensett.
Of course, the Hudson River School acquired its name because the artists primarily painted scenery along the river. There is no shortage of these sorts of works here, among them Frank Anderson’s “Breakneck Mountain, Hudson Highlands” (1878), Lemuel Maynard Wiles’s “Cove Near West Point” (1867), George Inness’s “Across the Hudson Valley, Foothills of the Catskills” (1868) and Samuel Colman’s “Barges on the Hudson” (1867), arguably the show’s best work and a definite candidate for the term masterpiece, whatever that means these days. A simple, tranquil river scene, it is very atmospheric, with a dramatic sky and shimmering water.
There is a small section devoted to seascapes and scenes of water followed by a group from the American West. Two paintings of animals at sunset in a vast and open landscape by Albert Bierstadt set the overall tone, followed by a dramatic view of Yosemite by Thomas Hill, painted circa 1887. It looks down into the Yosemite Valley, following the line of the Merced River, with natural landmarks like Sentinel Rock visible in the distance. The scene is enveloped in a light morning mist.
I stood looking at this work for some time, eventually imagining that I was there, standing on the cliff looking down into the valley; I could almost feel the wind on my face.
Eventually I drifted back to reality, gathered my notebook and left the museum. Thinking about this experience later, I was reminded of what is so pleasurable about the experience of a great work of art: For a brief moment, it allows you to forget where you are and be transported to another time and place.
?Poetic Journey: Hudson River School Paintings From the Grey Collection,? Nassau County Museum of Art, 1 Museum Drive, Roslyn Harbor, through March 15. Information: (516) 484-9337 or nassaumuseum.com.