James Augustus Suydam. ‘Sunset in the Hudson Highlands’, Oil on Canvas, 1862. Private Collection.
James Augustus Suydam (1819-1865) was a descendant of one of the old Dutch merchant families of New York. Having begun his career in law and architecture, inherited wealth eventually enabled him to devote himself to an occupation which came to engross his interests and make use of his abilities more than any of the others: painting. Given his descent from colonial Dutch pioneers, and his many associations from birth with families similar to his own, who had come from the Netherlands in tiny ships in the 17th century to explore and–as they saw it–live lives of order and purpose in the midst of a spectacularly unspoiled region of the world–perhaps it was most fitting that Suydam should come to be associated with the Hudson River and Luminist schools of American art. Because the painters of the Hudson River School were essentially romanticists, and I have always felt that those who braved the raging Atlantic in flimsy sailing ships to build new lives in America must have been, in many cases, not so much desperate as romantic: their vision of the New World was grand and idealistic, and they really believed they could leave Europe and its quarrels behind and begin a new life along harmonious and even divinely inspired lines.
The Luminists, as they are controversially known today, painted between about 1850 and 1870, and were noted for their use of light in landscapes, the concealing of brushstrokes, calm and reflective vistas, limpid waters and soft misty skies. As John Wilmerding put it in his book on the Luminist Movement, ‘American Light’ (Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, 1980): Luminist art is ‘characterized by a heightened perception of reality carefully organized and controlled by principles of design…It was Luminism, more than any other of the schools, that succeeded in imbuing an objective study of nature with a depth of feeling.’ It is that depth (or I would rather say intense and passionate warmth) of feeling for the Hudson River Valley and adjoining areas which so much strikes me in the work of James Augustus Suydam. I can’t help wondering if it came not so much from his observational abilities and technical virtuosity as a painter as from his love for a region of the country in which his family had deep roots and to which it had been closely bound for more than two often tumultuous centuries. Suydam’s work reminds me of the serene and purposeful and light filled landscape paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. The image reproduced at the top of this post is of a work Suydam painted after an excursion to the upper waters of the Hudson in the state of New Hampshire. There is a Claude Lorrain type quality to it–but Lorrain was essentially a romanticist too.