Hudson River School at LACMA

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If you are seeking serenity and spiritual solace this season, you may find them at Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School at LACMA through June 7, 2015. 

Thomas Cole, "The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire," 1836
Oil on canvas
New York Historical Society, Gift of the New York Gallery of the Fine Arts

Drawn from what is considered one of greatest collections of such paintings, the New York Historical Society, also the first museum to open in that city in 1804, the exhibition outlines the motivations and desires of artists who sought to represent both the physical facts and spiritual possibilities of the American landscape. Frederic Edwin Church, Asher B. Durand, John Frederick Kensett, George Inness: all the major names are on hand with particular emphasis on the great Thomas Cole. His renowned 1834 series "The Course of Empire" is shown in its entire five panels and installed just as it was in the double height salon of his patron Luman Reed. (Reed died before seeing the commission installed but his heirs insured that the pictures not only stayed together but that they were given to the newly formed museum.)

Thomas Cole, "The Course of Empire: Desolation," 1836
Oil on canvas
New York Historical Society, Gift of the New York Gallery of the Fine Arts

Cole was musing on future of America as it was developing its power and prestige but looking at Course of Empire now, you see the themes remain current. The first two panels of nature and Arcadian bliss culminate in a central panel dominated by hedonistic excess, the very consummation of empire. The subsequent two panels portray graphic destruction and the resulting ruins to be returned to nature. (Check out the bird building its nest atop a crumbling pillar.) If it seems cinematic, that is in part because the images have informed art directors in films throughout the 20th century. Ed Ruscha borrowed from the theme for his paintings in the American pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2005.

Louise Davis Minot, "Niagara Falls," 1818
Oil on linen
New York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Sr.
to the Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr. Collection

Apart from this series, the paintings largely concentrate on the verdant landscape along the Hudson River north of New York City. The artists excelled at capturing the qualities of light and implicitly allied them with spiritual properties. On the East Coast, the paintings represent versions of the Grand Tour as practiced in early 19th century America, visiting destinations like Niagara Falls rather than cultural sites favored in Europe. In the Western United States, artists painted sites in keeping with the ideals of Manifest Destiny, including works by Albert Bierstadt. Organized by the Historical Society's Linda Ferber with LACMA's Ilene Fort, the show offers a unique opportunity to spend time with truly American masterpieces.

The 2014 holiday tree at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Photo by Lisa Blackburn

And don't stop there: Go to the Huntington Museum in Pasadena to check out works on paper by American artists like Winslow Homer and Charles Burchfield but don't miss the Christmas tree decorated by artist Konstantin Kakanias with his own bird ornaments. Then head to the Norton Simon Museum to enjoy the treasure trove of pre-modern art that Simon purchased from the Duveen Gallery and now being shown in Lock, Stock and Barrel through April 27, 2015. All are great ways to stay in the spirit of the holidays!