The Hudson School painter falls due 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 meet a woman with her paints, pencils and sketch pad in the woods.

Very unusual, yes, 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 is part of a concerted effort to add more artists from the Hudson River School to the museum’s vast collection.

“We’re breaking and expanding traditional notions of the Hudson River School,” says chief curator Douglas McCombs.

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

The three newly acquired works by Beers are currently being analyzed and restored, but a visitor was allowed to take a look at them. McCombs unlocked several doors that led to a work area in the curatorial section of the museum where the fluorescent lights in sharp contrast to the soft lighting in the galleries. There was one of the two new paintings on a work table.

The large landscape shows a gently rolling scene under a hazy blue sky. In the foreground a small herd of cows grazes in a fenced-in 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 are full of leaves, but the grass is turning brown in places.

“This is the greatest Beers work I’ve ever come across,” says McCombs of the 18 by 30 inch screen. “Usually they are only half the size.”

Several small pearls were missing from an intricately ornate gold frame that was original for the painting. Tom Nelson, the museum’s exhibition and graphic designer, made wax casts of some of the remaining beads and made replacements from a mixture of sawdust and putty, which he painted with gold. The next stop for the painting would be an external restorer who would carefully remove a layer of yellowed varnish from the painting.

Beers’ work was purchased at Sotheby’s in New York City in July under the title “Cows in Landscape”. The auction catalog listed the date as 1861, but McCombs is confident that due to its high standards, it was created much later, probably sometime in the 1880s.

“Beer didn’t start painting until 1860,” he explains. “This 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 Cow Painters” and several of her paintings in the gallery attest to this accuracy of this nickname.

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

A few brightly lit rooms away from the work area, two more works of art by Beers – donated by a private collector – hang on a metal grille, waiting to be worked on. One, a small oil painting dated September 16, 1872, shows a stream winding through a wooded area, with a series of misty mountains in the distance. The third work is a painting of purple grapes on an oval metal plate, an object McCombs believes he used in the summer to cover the hole in a kitchen wall that a wood-burning pipe was built into in the winter.

Julie Hart Beers was born in 1835 to Scottish immigrants and grew up in Albany. Growing up with her brothers, it’s not hard to imagine that she learned to paint by being around them but didn’t exhibit her work until after her first husband died in 1860, when she moved from the Albany area to Brooklyn to be near their brothers. Her style is very similar to Williams, and McCombs says that if you didn’t know who painted “Cows in Landscape”, “you’d think it was a William Hart”.

In the years that followed, Beers organized sketching trips for women to the Hudson Valley, the White Mountains, and Maine, with her brother William serving as 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 was most likely also instrumental in her advancement 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 with various elements from her brother’s Italian paintings.

Katherine Manthorne, Professor of Art History at the Graduate Center, CUNY, said in a virtual talk sponsored by the Albany Institute last March entitled “Shattering Gender Barriers: Women Painters in the American Landscape Tradition,” women of this era, if they painted in general and were considered specialists in still lifes, flowers, fruit and domestic scenes.

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

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

McCombs expects the two Beers paintings to hang in the Hudson River School gallery by mid-2022. The work on metal is kept in collection warehouses where researchers can study it.

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