Robert A. Hageman
The next time you drive past Whittredge Avenue at the juncture of Summit Avenue you might think of Thomas Worthington Whittredge. His property and original home studio (later torn down and replaced by Whittredge Gardens and Worthington Court apartments in 1928) was where this important artist of the 19th century Hudson River School of painters lived for thirty years until 1910 just three months shy of his 90th birthday.
Whittredge moved to Summit with his family (wife and four daughters) in 1880 and built an impressive Victorian home he called "Hillcrest", then located at 166 Summit Avenue where the apartments now stand. He described the Summit area as having "wide stretches of forest land bordering on rich meadow lands along the Passaic; and from the hills glimpses of the great city could be obtained."
An array of artistic talent and influence on American culture could Thc be seen gathering many times at the Summit home of Whittredge. Among those painters who visited were Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Church, Joseph Cropsey George Illness, John Kensett, and Alexander Wyant.
Whittredge served as President of the National Academy of Design in New York from 1875 - 1877. His paintings are in the American Wing at the Metropoli tan Museum of Art in New York and in the Washington National Gallery.
His lifework has been described by one critic in the following way: "Over a period of nearly seven decades, Whittredge divined one of the consummate Hudson River School careers. His love of nature, rich native technical talent that transcended his essentially self-taught origins, and marvelous artistic sensibility all combined to create a brilliant body of work."
In the early through mid-nineteenth century the national consciousness of America was characterized by a period of nationalism and a Romantic spiritual view of nature. Writers such as William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper and the Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau expressed in their writings that man's union with nature is the highest morality.
During this period, American painters struggled for acceptance in the European art world. Their formative painting years were spent in Europe studying in the art centers of London, Rome and Dusseldorf. Among these young painters was Thomas Worthington Whittredge.
In his autobiography Whittredge writes, l was born in Ohio in 1820 ... Log cabins were the rule and I was born in one... My boyhood was spent on my father's farm on the Little Miami River near Springfield."
In 1837, at the age of seventeen, Whittredge went to Cincinnati to live and train with his brother-in-law as a house and sign painter. After a time and a failed daguerreotypes (photography) business he moved to Indianapolis, where he began to paint portraits, while living with the family of Harriet Beecher Stowe whom he painted. He closed his portrait painting career in 1843 while living in Charleston, West Virginia.
From 1843 - 1849 he went back to Cincinnati where he set out to be a landscapist painter. Whittredge developed slowly as a painter but found that he was sensitive to light, color and composition and was able to simplify the detail found in nature in his painting. He achieved a local reputation and in 1846 a landscape was accepted and praised by the National Academy of Design in New York.
In 1849,armed with some advanced commissions for his landscapes, Thomas set out for Europe's art centers associating with many of the influential artists such as Albert Bierstadt and Sanford Gifford who taught and studied there. While in Dusseldorf he posed as Washington for Emanuel Leutze in his famous painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware". Why? It seems that no German model could be found who could fill Washington's clothes.
In 1855 he began to sign his paintings "W. Whittredge" instead of his usual "T. W. Whittredge".
Whittredge stayed in Europe for ten years painting, studying and observing the world of art. He finally concluded that a permanent abode abroad was not the best thing for an American artist. We are looking and hoping for something distinctive in the art of our country, something which shall receive a new tinge from our... form of Government, from our position on the globe, or something peculiar to our people, to distinguish it from the art of the other nations and to enable us to pronounce without shame the oft repeated phrase, `American Art'."
Worthington Whittredge returned to America in 1859, residing in New York City and painting in the Tenth Street-Studio Building, associating with members who would later be called the Hudson River School. He soon realized that if he was to succeed he would have to create something new in his paintings inspired by his new home surroundings.
He began to observe the widely praised and delicately refined landscapes of Thomas Cole, Thomas Doughty (an important inspiration to Cole and the first American artist to make a living by exclusively painting landscapes) and Asher Durand (first American landscape painter said to use a sketch box and go outdoors to paint directly from nature).
The Hudson River School imprinted America into the mainstream of the "art world". Its artists reflected and promoted the idea that society's values could be found in the wilderness of America. These painters searched and ventured for several months at a time into the Catskills, the Adirondacks, the Rocky Mountains of the West and the deserts of New Mexico. Their prime focus however, was the Northeast with an emphasis on the Hudson River Valley.
The group was significantly influenced by William Cullen Bryant who was one of the first 19th century American writers to link nature with the Divine. The Hudson River artists found in Bryant's work a justification for landscape painting in America. Whittredge writes in his auto- biography that "Bryant's poems have always affected me deeply. Many of them breathed a spirit of our forests, lakes and rivers so peculiar to their primitive lonesomeness that they struck a note in my breast scarcely touched by any of our poets."
When Whittredge came back to America he eventually went to the Catskills with his sketch box to paint. A Hudson River School painter believed that "a landscape painter is only at home when he is out of doors".
In 1860 he sent three paintings to the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design in New York. They were not only well received but he was elected an Academician entitled to vote in all the affairs of the institution.
By the mid-1860's Whittredge was attracting the attention of critics and patrons. He lacked neither buyers or exhibitions. Most of his paintings completed up to 1866 were woodland interiors painted from sketches done in the Catskills and the Shawangunk Mountains. Many were of a forest illuminated with natural sunlight transmitting the beauty of autumn.
Inspired by the great massive landscapes of Bierstadt, Whittredge joined an expedition to the American West in 1866 under General John Pope. The 2,000 mile trip on horseback was important to his artistic development bringing new depth and breadth of vision to his landscapes. He made two other trips West in the 1870's.
Most of his Western paintings were made on the plains with mountains in the distance. He describes his experiences in the West as ones in which he was sur rounded by "vastness and silence and the appearance everywhere of an innocent, primitive existence".
Following the Civil War, American society began to undergo a transformation. The Hudson River School which saw "nature as a reflection of God's glory" and a belief that insight could be gained into the workings of the universe by studying nature began to be questioned. Industrial growth, the railroad, immigration, westward expansion in the Reconstruction period and ecological destruction led to new social and economic problems and attitudes toward nature by the end of the nineteenth century.
By 1883, Whittredge began what some critics say was an almost imperceptible decline in his artistry. After 1885 he began to retire slowly as a professional artist as the execution of his paintings was gradually losing its deftness and precision. He still kept a studio on Tenth Street to maintain contact with New York art critics, while living in Summit.
In 1889 he was asked to be President of the Committee of United States Artists which selected works by artists in the United States for the Paris International Exposition. This honor recognized him as the dean of landscape painters.
On February 25, 1910, Worthington Whittredge died peacefully in Summit. In recent years the Hudson River School of Painting has seen a renewed respect both philosophically and in the financial appraisal of the artists' works. The renewal of the legacy of these painters has been brought about by national concerns over the remaining wilderness in the United States, sprawling urban areas eroding the national landscape, water and air pollution, and an ever fragile environment.
For some, these concerns have become spiritual issues with the remaining landscape reaching a Divine level of "test we forget" in the national consciousness just as it was in the mid- nineteenth century.