Part 1. William Hart
“…Go first to Nature to learn to paint landscape, and when you shall have earnt to imitate her, you may then study the pictures of great artists with benefit . . . I would urge on any young student in landscape painting, the importance of painting direct from Nature as soon as he shall have acquired the first rudiments of Art…”
Asher Durand, a leading Hudson River School painter.
Letters on Landscape Painting (1855)
The Hudson River School painters produced the most richly colourful and remarkable landscape works of the 19th century. However, the term “Hudson River School” was a judgemental term used by European critics who were used to, and preferred, the revered realism of the French Barbizon School. The Hudson River paintings celebrated and honoured the rugged beauty of the American landscape. The works effectively communicated the natural grandeur of what was termed the New World. The paintings did not just depict scenes of the Hudson River Valley, but also depicted scenes from the Catskills, Adirondacks, White Mountains, the Maritimes, the American West and South and the second-generation painters even captured the beauty of their Canadian neighbour. In earlier blogs I have looked at the life and works of many of the Hudson River painters such as Frederick Church, Asher Durand and the man looked upon as the founder of the movement, Thomas Cole. In my next three blogs I am going to look at the members of a family whose art followed the concepts of this art movement. Let me introduce you to three members, siblings, of the Hart family.
James Hart and Marion Robertson lived in Scotland and the couple married on July 16th 1811, and they went on to have ten children. Of these, William Hart was born in Paisley, Scotland on March 31st 1823 and James McDougal Hart was born five years later on May 10th 1828. In 1830 James and Marion Hart and their seven children sailed for America, arriving in New York on February 12th aboard the SS Camillus. They later settled in Albany in up-state New York. At the time of their sea voyage, James was twenty-one months old and William was just a few months away from his seventh birthday. On December 28th 1834, their youngest child, a daughter, Julia Fenn Hart was born. She was the only child of the family to be born in America. Julia later changed the spelling of her name to Julie and dropped the middle name, Fenn, entirely.
If you read about William Hart you will see his name is often given as “William M Hart” or “William McDougal Hart” but some say the middle name “McDougal” was his brother’s middle name and not his. I have no idea of the correct name so I will just refer to him as William Hart. Above is a signature from one of his paintings and he has signed it “Wm” with the small letter “m” underlined which I believe is a shortened version of William and not the initial of a middle name. William’s artistic ability was all self-taught. He was apprenticed to a decorative painter in Albany, New York and worked in the local township of Troy. He was employed to paint coach panels and window shades with depictions of landscapes. Later William decided to set himself up as a portrait painter and travelled in search of commissions and spent several years in and around Michigan but returned to Albany in 1845 because of ill health and a paucity of business opportunities.
To give some idea of the artistry of William Hart, one only has to look at one of his first landscape works. It is a prime example of his talent at using oil paints plein air which required a special talent. Prior to 1841, when collapsible paint tubes revolutionized plein air painting, pigments had to be mixed and blended by hand, and then carefully sealed in leather bladder bags for transport. It was a time-consuming and problematic task. However, William Hart probably was able to buy the collapsible tubes. The work was entitled First Sketch from Nature and this oil on canvas work was completed in 1845, by the twenty-two year old. On the reverse of the canvas is inscribed the words:
“…My first sketch from Nature in Oil Wm. Hart 1845 Normanskill near Albany N.Y…”
His first art works were exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1848. Having gained the financial assistance of a patron, Doctor Ormsby, William Hart went abroad in 1849. He spent three years travelling around both England, but mainly his native Scotland before returning to Albany in 1852.
In the following year he took up residence in New York and at this time, all his art was focused on landscape painting and many would include studies of cattle. Cattle were a popular decorative addition in Hudson River School art, and many of the artists from that group included them in at least some of their landscapes. The inclusion of the animals was looked upon as being symbolic of man’s cordial rapport with nature.
In 1854, he opened up his own studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building, situated at 51 West 10th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Manhattan. It was the first modern facility in the city designed solely to serve the needs of artists. It became the centre of the New York art world for the remainder of the 19th century. In its initial years, Winslow Homer took a studio there, as did Edward Lamson Henry, and many of the artists of the Hudson River School, including Frederic Church, Lockwood de Forest and Albert Bierstadt.
William soon became one of the most popular landscape artists of the late nineteenth century. He was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design in 1854 and an academician in 1858. On July 15th that same year William and his wife, Jennette had their first child, a daughter, Jessie.
William Hart was a founder of the Brooklyn Academy of Design and seven years later, in 1865, he became its first president. William Hart exhibited his work on a regular basis throughout the mid 1870’s in particular at the Brooklyn Art Association. He was also one of the eleven founding members of the American Watercolour Society, which was formed at a meeting at the Gilbert Burling’s studio in the New York University Building on December 5th 1866 and Hart was its president from 1870 to 1873. It is interesting to note that although the Society wished to keep the quality of its membership high, many of the top artists of the time were reluctant to join the new Society because women had been allowed membership.
William Hart also painted in watercolours and his 1860 watercolour and pencil on paper work entitled White Pine, Shokan, Ulster County, New York is a fine example of his work. It is a depiction of a white pine tree. Few works can surpass the immediacy and spontaneity of William Hart’s watercolour of a stately white pine tree, which he observed whilst visiting Shokan, New York, which lies on the eastern edge of the Catskill Mountains. Hart frequently went on long sketching trips and travelled throughout the Hudson River valley. He even went as far away as Maine and Lake Superior. As a talented draughtsman he experimented with different media and diverse styles. William Hart completed close to four hundred drawings and watercolours which in 2004 were donated to the Albany Institute and from looking at the collection one can see his love of nature and his determination to depict it accurately.
William Hart was also known for his remarkable etchings. In 1883 the Art Department of the New England Manufacturers’ and Mechanics’ Institute, Boston, held an important exhibition of contemporary American art. The 731 works on view were mainly American drawings and etchings one of which William M. Hart’s etching, Naponock (Naponoch) Scenery, Ulster County, New York.
That same year Hart completed an oil painting depicting the same area which also included the obligatory cattle. It was simply entitled Scene at Naponock and can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a direct bequest from Hart’s daughter, Jessie Hart White.
William Hart died at Mount Vernon, New York, in June, 1894, aged 71 and was buried at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.