Glorifying the Wilderness Experience

So many things drove the westward expansion of the 1800s. The lure of a better life. Cheap land. Adventure. The railroad. Art.


Home in the Woods by Thomas Cole (1847)

Wait a minute. How did art drive the westward expansion?

In the mid-1800s, a new wave hit the artistic community, a desire to show nature in it’s most glorified state. Known as the Hudson River School, this movement focused on dramatic landscapes painted with romanticism and wonderful uses of light and detail to make the subject even more attractive than it might usually appear. It derived its name from the original locales that were painted–such places as the Hudson River Valley, Catskills, Adirondack, and the White Mountains. As the movement grew and inspired a second generation of painters, however, the ladscapes they painted encompassed wilderness areas from as far away as South America and Syria. The themes of the paintings fit so perfectly with the American persona of the time. Themes of discovery, exploration, and settlement. And for a growing number of east coast citizens, the appeal came in viewing untamed lanscapes and idyllic nature scenes so different from the bustling cities to which they had become accustomed.

Thomas Cole is considered by most to be the father of the Hudson River School, but it was his prize pupil, Frederic Edwin Church, who became a true celebrity. Some of the finest works from the Hudson River School were painted between 1855 and 1875, and Church’s works consituted the majority. His paintings are truly stunning. I must admit that I fell in love with them myself. Here are a few of my favorites:

Niagra Falls (1857)
The Natural Bridge - Virginia (1852)







Twilight in the Wilderness (1860)










You really have to see larger images to do them justice.

In the 20th century, the term luminism was coined to describe this style. It is characterized by attention to detail and the hiding of brush strokes so that nothing distracts from the vision of nature being depicted. Artists in the Hudson River School for the most part believed that nature in the form of the American landscape was a manifestation of God. Therefore they painted highly realistic yet idealized renderings of what they had seen on their travels.

Often, they visited such dangerous, hard-to-reach places, that they could only carry a sketch book. They depended on these sketches and their memories to reconstruct the images they had seen once they returned to the safety of home.

In my current work in progress, my heroine’s mother was an art teacher back east who was greatly influenced by the Hudson River School. It is her dedication to this style of art that drives her to leave her safe city life to search out her own wilderness to paint. This, of course, eventually leads her to Texas.

What type of art speaks to your heart? I’ve always preferred realist landscapes that capture the glory of God’s creation. That’s probably why these paintings gripped me so completely. What about you? Do you have a painting or print in your house that you just adore? What painting would you buy if money was no object? I’d love to hear about it.

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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at:

23 thoughts on “Glorifying the Wilderness Experience”

  1. I prefer the landscapes type paintings myself. I have a print in my living of the one room school house my dad went to when he was growing up. I am really fond of it.

  2. Hi Karen!

    I’m so excited about your post! I just finished a wip where my hero is an artist in the mid-1800s West. It’s been my favorite story and hero to date. He’s one who has to do sketches and bring it to life later.

    I’ve always loved Charlie Russell and Frederick Remington, especially Russell he captured the cowboy and the west like no other, IMO.

    But the artwork in my home is all from my grandmother. When my grandfather passed away she took up painting and was amazing (again IMO). I have paintings of Wyoming mountains, farms and landscapes. I love when people ask about the artist who did my paintings and I can say my grandma, and I get the “She’s amazing.”

    Thanks for the great information and I look forward to your artist heroine.


  3. I love the landscapes of the Hudson River and have enjoyed a great artists and their paintings many from Brown County, IN — TC Steele..for one. which is what I would purchase… I always wondered if those who were encouraged by paintings were ever not quite so charmed by the native wildlife, including the insects!!

  4. Hi, Quilt Lady. How fun to have a painting with such personal sentiment in your home. That’s a true treasure. I bet you can just look at the old schoolhouse and picture your father inside, can’t you?

    My father and grandfather built the house I grew up in, and when my dad died (I was only 16), my mom decided to move into town, but she paid an artist from our church to come and paint the house to preserve the memory. My brother has that painting now. It hangs in his bedroom, and whenever I visit him, I love to look at it and remember.

  5. Kristen – I’ve always admired people with artistic talent. Probably because I have so little of it myself. Even my stick figures are lopsided. LOL.

    My grandma, too, took up painting in her 70s. I have a small landscape she did hanging in my bedroom. My mother-in-law has a great deal of painting talent as well. I have two pieces of hers in my house too.

    I think I’ll stick with creating word pictures, myself. I’d never be able to compete, otherwise. 🙂

  6. Cate – I hear you with those insects. I’m so glad the artists kept that part to themselves. It’s a lot like writing a novel. We have license to romanticize as much as we want, because really – who wants to read about cowboy heroes who stink and have poor dental hygiene? It might be more realistic to the time period, but it certainly isn’t romantic.

  7. Hi Karen,
    When I was young my family visited the Whitney Art Museum in Cody Wyoming. Those paintings of mountain peaks, waterfalls and especially the incredible light were spell-binding. It felt like I was looking at the scenes from God’s perspective. I wished I could work there so I could see them every day.

    I have since visited other art museums and been touched by various paintings, but my first love will always be Albert Bierstadt. I would hate to own any great work of art. IMHO they should be shared with the world.

    Thanks for the wonderful post. Looking forward to reading your book.

  8. Beautiful paintings. I would hang them in my home!

    Many years ago, a new friend who had only been in our home a few times, asked me what kind of pictures I had in our home and I answered by saying, “OH, we have nothing but originals in our home. Only thing that I hang.” meaning all the crayon drawings done by my children and all of my daycare children. How embarrassed I was, when he appologised for giving me a print of a beautiful painting that he then pulled out from behind his back.

  9. Judy – The Whitney Art Museum sounds like heaven on earth. Those are all my favorite subjects: waterfalls, mountains, rugged wilderness. I bet I could spend days in there just soaking it in.

    I looked up Albert Bierstadt. WOW!!! I love his work. Gorgeous stuff. Gates of the Yosemite (1882) is stunning. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Oh my goodness, Connie. What a funny story! I can just imagine how awkward that moment must have been, but I bet you both laugh about it now.

    My office is decorated with many “originals”. My youngest will periodically color a picture at school and bring it home with instructions for me to hang it up in my office. I’m glad to comply, of course.

  11. I love this post, Karen. I did a lot of research into the Hudson River School for Wrangler in Petticoats. Thomas Moran was the one I loved. And a while ago Albert Bierstadt painting were on stamps.
    They did such beautiful work.
    And I had my hero from Wrangler in Petticoats, a painter, be flirting with Impressionist painting, too, which came after Hudson River.
    Great blog, I LOVE those pictures.

  12. Moran did some great work, Mary. I love his depiction of Cascade Falls in Yosemite. Everything is so beautiful there, it’s no wonder so many fabulous artists spent time recreating that splendor.

    So…if a picture paints a thousand words, our books should be worth at least a couple of these paintings, right? Maybe at least a print? 🙂

  13. What an interesting blog. I never thought about painters leading a whole new wave of settlers. I can’t imagine what they felt as they gazed at landscapes so vivid and beautiful that it took their breath. I’m sure some of the things they saw were the first time to be viewed by anyone. How neat that would be. Painted landscapes speak to me in a way no other type of paintings do. I never did care for the interpretative type of painting.

    I can’t wait for the next Karen Witemeyer book. I love the way you put words together that “paint” pictures.

  14. Oh, I forgot to say that I have two very old paintings of wagons and horses with mountains in the background that an elderly friend gave me before she passed away. The painter didn’t put his name on them though so there’s no way really to trace their origin. But I treasure them.

  15. Hi, Linda. That’s one of the reasons I love these 19th century landscapes so much. These artists were probably some of the first to discover such beauty and they saw it before pollution had a chance to corrupt it. Like reading, looking at these paintings is another way to step back in time. I love it.

    Oh, and those wagon pictures sound wonderful. What a treasure they must be, reminding you not only of the West you love, but a dear friend as well. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Karen, go to an art museum and see if they’ll let you swap?

    The Oklahoma City National Cowboy & Western Museum has a really great collection of western art. And the Philbrook House in Tulsa has a few Thomas Moran painting. Both places are worth a long, lovely day of your life to wander through.

  17. Gorgeous pictures, Karen. And I loved the background information and the term luminism. I confess to having an art degree but the Hudson River school wasn’t covered, more’s the pity. Probably because of the heavy emphasis on modern art and abstraction. I’m so excited about the tie-in to your current book.

  18. Thanks, Tanya. I didn’t know you studied Art. Did you study much American art? We are such new kids compared to the great European masters, I can understand why it might be overlooked.

  19. Sorry I missed this yesterday. These examples are lovely. I have always preferred this type of painting. Landscapes and those which depict people of the region. Some of these early paintings showing native peoples and their way of life draw me in and give a personal insight into who they were.
    Thanks for the post and pictures.

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