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Art of the World's `Central Park'

By Margaret Tsuda / December 7, 1992



IN 1864, a hyperbolic headline in the New York Times described the area where I live as the "Central Park of the World." This area had been an unmapped, nameless wilderness of about 6 million square miles in northeastern New York State. It had been trod only by Indian moccasins and the boots of the hardiest settlers - almost a terra incognita - until 1837 when it was christened "The Adirondacks" by the New York State Natural History Survey. The name, translated bark-eaters, was the one the Iroquois India ns gave to the Algonquin.

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In 1837, Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, the co-founders of what is known as the "Hudson River School" of American landscape painting, sketched around the Schroon Lake area in the eastern Adirondacks. Cole decided the scenery was "not grand, but has a wild sort of beauty."

The name, Adirondack, and the area quickly caught on. Also in 1837, another landscapist, Charles Cromwell Ingham, painted his sizable oil painting titled "The Great Adirondack Pass," which he proudly labeled as having been "painted on the spot."

The image depicts a rocky defile guarded by huge boulders, with the sheer rise of a cliff face in the background brooding over a forest. At the base of one stupendous boulder, the tiny figure of a woodsman is already busy with his ax. Larger and better-defined in the left foreground is the artist painting away in rapture at the magnificently forbidding scene.

Long before the region attracted enough notice to have the New York State legislature establish the Adirondack Forest Preserve and declare it "forever wild" in 1885 and before the outer perimeters of the Adirondack Park were established, artists were making their own personal statements about the Adirondacks and, so to speak, discussing multiple uses of the area.

One might read Ingham's painting as placing the aesthetic "wilderness" experience of the urban artist escaping from the city on a higher plane than that of the woodsman chopping away for a living. Aesthetics and livelihood have been pitted against each other ever since.

Thus, the procession of eminent artists to the Adirondacks began. Many other Hudson River painters found inspiration there and expressed the prevailing view that to experience nature untouched by man was to draw closer to the divine.

Unlike Ingham's unusual landscape, artists like William James Stillman chose views, as in his "Saranac Lake," so characteristic and ubiquitous that today one can still find them everywhere. The roster of early landscapists includes Samuel Colman, Frederick Edwin Church, Homer Dodge Martin, Wiliam Trost Richards, and John Frederick Kensett.

Kensett was a friend of both Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole. He had accompanied Durand to Europe and had met Cole in Paris. Kensett is con- sidered part of the "second generation" of Hudson River painters and of the movement called "luminism." His luminist canvases reached their peak in his later years on the Connecticut shore, but the 1856 canvas shown here, "Lake George," shows his underlying interest in light and its effects on sky, mountains, and water and his emphasis on the serene aspects of natu re.

Not all painters confined their pictorial commentary to the sublimity or serenity of unsubdued nature. Eliphalet Terry, who was Winslow Homer's first teacher, painted a stark canvas in 1859 of "Baker's Farm" bleakly surrounded by tree stumps, with an antler-crowned deer looking reproachfully out of the foreground. The beauty of the background mountains seems very far away from this bare subsistence farm.