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Dover Plains, Dutchess County, New York, 1848 by Asher B. Durand Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Cary Lecture Highlights Prehistoric Formation of Artistic Landscape


‘Our part of the world is a gift of the Ice Age,” stated Johanna Titus during a virtual lecture on Wednesday, Jan. 18, presented by the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies. She and her husband, Robert — both of them scientists, authors, and journalists as well as longtime residents of the Hudson Valley and Catskills — discussed the landscapes expressed by artists of the Hudson River School and their geological foundations in a lecture titled “The Hudson River School of Art and Its Ice Age Origins.”

“The geologic processes of the Wisconsin glaciation, more commonly known as the last ice age, shaped the landscapes and defined the first art movement in America: the Hudson River School of Art,” said Johanna.

Blogging at www.thecatskillgeologist.com, the Tituses have spent countless hours researching and exploring the Catskills, especially the area known to Hudson River School artist and founder Thomas Cole, who Johanna called “the movement’s heart.” Cole’s first trip to the Catskills resulted in his 1825 painting “Lake With Dead Trees,” which was created in what is now North-South Lake Campground in Hunter, one of the most popular state parks in New York.

After a bit more background and identification of other Hudson River School artists including Asher Brown Durand, Robert began his explanation of the geology of the region with how the aforementioned North Lake and was created by a glacier.

“North Lake and South Lake weren’t always there,” said Robert. “Fifteen thousand years ago, they did not exist. But then 14,000 years ago, the glaciers came along and scoured out these basins.”

The Tituses continued in much the same vein throughout the talk, with Johanna identifying key landscape features in various Hudson River School artworks and Robert examining how said features were formed.

“The climate eventually changed . . . all that ice began melting and all that meltwater glutted the local streams, and they eroded into even more scenic landscapes,” Johanna explained, discussing the formation of glacial Lake Albany and how the valley captured in Durand’s 1848 painting “Dover Plains, Dutchess County, New York” is the lake bottom.

“The Hudson River School painters were painting at a place in time when a lot of science was changing,” said Johanna.

For those who were interested in seeing the physical locations depicted in the Hudson River School artworks, the Tituses pointed to the existence of the Hudson River Art Trail, a project of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, as well as the Tituses’ own forthcoming book that will include “probably 100 locations and directions on how to get to them and what you’re going to see when you get there,” according to Robert.

“We write mostly about the geology of the region and how the geology influenced the culture of the Catskills and, of course, the greater Hudson Valley,” Johanna said. “We often talk about the paintings where the Hudson River is seen and the fact that there is no industry in those paintings. . . . [They] decided to paint that stuff out, and I think it was just to encourage people to come and see the beauty of the place.”

A video of the program is available to watch at the Cary Institute’s website at www.caryinstitute.org and its YouTube channel.

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