Brushing up on history

The New-York Historical Society on Manhattan’s West Side is the city’s stately living room and glamorous attic, a place where historians and artifacts alike have come together to tell a story like no other.

The exhibits – including the elegant “Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America” and the moving, revelatory “Slavery in New York” – are stunning; the numbers, staggering – 2 million manuscripts, more than 1.6 million artworks, 500,000 photographs, 400,000 prints. And that’s just for starters.

Nearly 40,000 of these works can be seen in the open, glass-encased storage area that is The Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, one of several dedicated departments that include the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library; the Education Center; The Gilder Lehrman Collection of more than 40,000 maps, manuscripts and photographs; and the museum itself, the oldest in the city, founded in 1804.

In November 2011, the society’s landmark building, located in the shadow of the American Museum of Natural History, reopened after a three-year, $70 million facelift. But last month marked another homecoming – the highly anticipated return of the society’s significant collection of Hudson River School paintings after a two-year national tour.

“We’re very happy to have them back,” said Linda Ferber, the society’s vice president and author of “The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision” (2009). “They resonate with a broad audience.”

The Hudson River School was neither a school nor exclusively about the Hudson River. (The name was actually a tag applied by a dismissive critic.) Instead, the Hudson River School was a movement in landscape painting that defined America as the new Eden in the decades that bracketed the Civil War. Its members – including founder and Catskill resident Thomas Cole, Hudson’s Frederic Church, Hastings-on-Hudson’s Jasper F. Cropsey and  Dobbs Ferry’s Samuel B. Colman – were the artists of the Americas, immortalizing vistas from Niagara Falls to the Andes Mountains.

They painted Europe and the Middle East. But they made their reputations with autumnal panoramas of this country.

“For whether (the American) beholds the Hudson mingling waters with the Atlantic, explores the central wilds of his vast continent or stands on the margin of the distant Oregon, he is still in the midst of American scenery—it is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity—all are his,” Cole said.

His  “The Course of Empire” series – the centerpiece of the society’s Hudson River School collection – depicts the conflict between nature and civilization that was at the heart of his art and that has reverberated down through our own eco-minded times.

After national disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, Ferber said, patrons will visit the series and ask themselves, “Where are we now? Will we break the cycle and avoid extinction?”

“(American scenery) is a subject that to every American ought to be of surpassing interest,” Cole once said. “And how undeserving of such a birthright, if he can turn towards it an unobserving eye, an unaffected heart!”

The New-York Historical Society is at 170 Central Park West in Manhattan. For more information, call (212) 873-3400 or visit nyhistory.org.

Georgette Gouveia contributed to this story.

 

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