James MacDougal Hart (1828-1901) The Coming Storm Oil on canvas

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James MacDougal Hart (1828-1901)

The Coming Storm

Oil on canvas

Canvas size: 41 3/8" x 54 ¼"

Framed size: 47" x 60"

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the American landscape was viewed as a dangerous wilderness, a harbor for Native Americans to plan and execute attacks, and an inconvenient obstruction to agricultural prosperity and development. It was to be conquered rather than admired. The American War of Independence brought about a desire for national identity, divorced from British influence and with an unmistakably American appearance. The landscape paintings of the Hudson River School were to embody this aspiration and answered such critics as the Reverend Sydney Smith, who in his 1820 article for the Edinburgh Review, asked: "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play? Or looks at an American picture or statue?"

The Hudson River School, as it has come to be termed, was "founded" by the painter Thomas Cole and was so-named because its proponents showed a fondness for depicting the scenery to be found in the countryside bordering the Hudson River. The locale was perhaps not accidental as the governor of New York, De Witt Clinton, was an ardent supporter of the arts and actively encouraged painters to use nature as an unexploited source of American inspiration. In an 1816 address he delivered at the opening ceremonies of the New York-based American Academy of the Fine Arts, he exalted both the American wilderness and the American cultural landscape as appropriate subjects for native arts, questioning: "And can there be a country in the world better calculated than ours to exercise and to exalt the imagination - to call into activity the creative powers of the mind, and to afford just views of the beautiful, the wonderful, and the sublime?"

Clinton's view was shared by Thomas Cole and his followers, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Worthington Whittredge and James MacDougal Hart amongst others. Cole believed that nature manifested to man the mind of the Creator and saw the artist as a prophet. His ideas were undoubtedly inspired by the poetic works of Byron, Coleridge, Keats and Wordsworth, as well as the Romantic movement in European painting. Moreover, John Ruskin had expressed similar thoughts in the first volume of Modern Painters, which was first published in England during 1843. An American edition followed in 1847. Ruskin wrote: "The landscape painters must always have two great and distinct ends; the first, to induce in the spectator's mind the faithful conception of any natural objects whatsoever; the second, to guide the spectator's mind to those objects most worthy of its contemplations, and to inform him of the thoughts and feelings with which these were regarded by the artist himself."

 These ideals were beautifully manifested in the paintings of James MacDougal Hart. He formed part of a dynasty of Hart painters, his brother William; sister, Julie Hart Beers Kempson; wife, Marie Theresa Gorsuch; and son, William Gorsuch Hart, also accompanying him in the art. Born in Kilmarnock, Scotland in 1828, James MacDougal Hart's family emigrated to Albany, New York during 1831. At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed as a sign painter, but eventually sought a higher calling as a landscape artist. His work, like many of the painters associated with the Hudson River School, was inspired by study at the Düsseldorf Academy. However, his paintings also reflect the influence of Scottish painting and in particular the work of Edwin Landseer whose landscapes so embodied the Victorian Romantic notion of Scotland, as idealized by Sir Walter Scott. Hart returned to New York in 1852 and the following year moved to Albany. In 1857 he established a permanent home in New York City and until his death in 1901 continued to produce paintings which glorified America as a rural Eden. One of his favorite subjects was cattle, as can be seen in The Coming Storm, where he depicted them huddled under a tree, as cows are wont to do during stormy weather. He is known to have once commented: "I strive to reproduce the feeling produced by the original scenes themselves. . ." and in this painting he certainly succeeds. The paintings of James MacDougal Hart can be found in several public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum.