A woman painter from the Hudson School will be expected at the Albany Institute


In the mid-19th century, when a group of artists known as the Hudson River School – Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, George Inness, Asher B. Durand and others – painted the American landscape, it would have been very unusual to find a woman in the woods with her paints, pencils and sketchbook.

Unusual, certainly, but not impossible, and the Albany Institute of History and Art has just acquired two paintings and a decorative piece by Julie Hart Beers. It’s part of a concerted effort to add more female artists from the Hudson River School to the museum‘s vast collection.

“We are breaking down and expanding traditional ideas of what makes up the Hudson River School,” says Chief Curator Douglas McCombs.

Beers was the younger sister of artists William Hart and James McDougal Hart, who respectively have 10 and eight works currently on display at the Albany Institute. Beers won’t be the first woman to hang on the wine-colored walls of the museum’s huge Hudson River School gallery, but she’ll be the first to be added in a while. Currently, two paintings by Sarah Cole, sister of Thomas Cole, are on display, one donated and the other purchased, both in 1964.

The three works newly acquired by Beers are currently being analyzed and restored, but a visitor was able to take a look. McCombs unlocked several doors leading to a work area in the museum’s conservation department, where fluorescent lights contrasted strongly with the soft illumination of the galleries. There, on a worktable, lay one of the two new paintings.

The large landscape depicts a gently rolling scene under a hazy blue sky. In the foreground, a small herd of cows graze in a fenced field. A stream bed separates the field from a group of white houses on a ridge. The lighting and vegetation suggest a late summer morning, the trees in full leaf but the grass turning brown in patches.

“This is the greatest Beers work I have ever seen,” McCombs says of the 18 x 30 inch canvas. “They usually tend to be half that size.”

An intricately decorated gold frame, original from the painting, turned out to have several small beads missing. Tom Nelson, the museum’s exhibit and graphic designer, made wax casts of a few remaining pearls and created replacements using a mixture of sawdust and spackle, which he painted gold. The next stop for the paint would be an exterior restorer, who will carefully remove a layer of yellowed varnish from the paint.

Beers’ work was purchased at a Sotheby’s auction in New York in July where it was called “Cows in the Landscape.” The auction catalog listed its date as 1861, but McCombs is confident that it was made much later, possibly in the 1880s, due to its level of sophistication.

“Beers started painting in 1860,” he explains. “It is not the work of someone who has been painting for a year.”

The inclusion of cows, says McCombs, is typical of the whole family. In fact, the brothers William and James were often referred to as “the painters of cows”, and several of their paintings in the gallery affirm this correctness of this nickname.

McCombs says there’s a good reason people were drawn to the pastoral scenes in the years after the Civil War. “We had just passed through a cataclysmic era,” he explains. “These paintings allowed people to remember a more peaceful past. ”

A few brightly lit pieces away from the work area, two other Beers works of art – these donated by a private collector – hang from a wire mesh, waiting to be processed. One, a small oil on panel dated September 16, 1872, shows a stream winding through a wooded area, a misty mountain range in the distance. The third work is a painting of purple grapes on an oval shaped metal plate, an item McCombs believes was used in the summer to cover the hole in a kitchen wall where a woodstove pipe would be installed in the winter.

Julie Hart Beers was born in 1835 to Scottish immigrants and raised in Albany. Growing up with her brothers, it’s not hard to imagine that she learned to paint from being around them, but didn’t start exhibiting her work until the death of her first husband in 1860. Left with two young children and a dependent mother, she moved from the Albany area to Brooklyn to be close to her brothers. His style is very similar to William’s, and McCombs says if you didn’t know who painted “Cows in Landscape”, “you might think he’s a William Hart.”

In the years that followed, Beers organized drawing trips for women to the Hudson Valley, the White Mountains and Maine, with her brother William as his chaperone. She exhibited at the National Academy of Design and the Boston Athenaeum in 1867 and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1868. Beers remarried and eventually settled in New Jersey. She died in 1913.

Sarah Cole’s story is similar to that of Beers. Her older brother, Thomas, probably contributed to her emergence as a painter and encouraged her to copy his canvases. One of Sarah’s paintings at the Institute, “A View of the Catskill Mountain House” (1848), is an exact replica of a painting by Thomas. The other, “Etna” (1846-1852), is probably a pastiche of different elements of his brother’s Italian paintings.

In a virtual conference last March sponsored by the Albany Institute titled “Shattering Gender Barriers: Women Painters in the American Landscape Tradition,” Katherine Manthorne, professor of art history at the Graduate Center, CUNY, said women of that time, if they painted at all, passed for specialists in still life, flowers, fruits and domestic scenes.

“A lot of these women broke with the ‘should’ and were a lot more explorers than we think,” Manthorne said. “We are discovering a whole new world of landscape paintings by women,” including Fidelia Bridges, Louise David Minot and Eliza Greatorex.

McCombs’ wishlist for future acquisitions includes Greatorex, who was not as prolific a painter as Beers but also worked as an etcher and etcher, as well as Robert Scott Duncanson, a self-taught African-American artist in Cincinnati, Ohio, whose style, McCombs says, is remarkably similar to that of Thomas Cole.

McCombs anticipates that Beers’ two paintings will be on display in the Hudson River School gallery by mid-2022. The metalwork will be kept in collection storage, where it can be studied by researchers.


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