Wave Hill Riverdale NY Term Paper

Pages: 10 (2971 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 19  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: American History

¶ … Artistic View: "Wave Hill" and the Hudson River School

In the northwest Bronx, a nineteenth century mansion set invitingly among trees and flowers looks out over the sparkling Hudson River and beyond toward the towering cliffs of the Palisades.

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A tiny distance from the concrete, steel, and glass jungle of the big city, Wave Hill offers New Yorkers the same thing it has offered them for more than one hundred fifty years - a green and pleasant oasis. Wave Hill is among the last survivors of the great houses that once lined the banks of the Hudson from the Island of Manhattan to far upstate. Built first by wealthy landowners, and later by even more fabulously financiers and industrialists, these estates provided an escape from the cares and crowds of the burgeoning metropolis at Manhattan's southern tip. As the City moved northward, so too did the country houses. By 1843, the year that William Lewis Morris built Wave Hill, the early railroads had made it possible to travel further and further along the River while still maintaining contact with the City proper. The choice of site possessed another advantage - Wave Hill's fine views showed off its builder's cultural pretensions. This was the era of the Hudson River School, an American offshoot of the European Romantic Movement. Art, architecture, literature, and music appealed to the emotions, and to a sense of timeless beauty. Romantic works often recall a distant and mysterious past: desolate, crumbling ruins; the hidden chambers of a Gothic castle, the stirring tales of ancient folk heroes. Evocations of nature - wild and untamed - were also popular. Lacking a long history of their own, Americans in particular, looked to nature to satisfy their Romantic urges. Many people known for their interest in nature or the arts - Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, and Arturo Toscanini - owned or stayed at Wave Hill. Wave Hill became both a symbol, and a seat, of this entire movement; its echoes redounding down to the present.

Term Paper on Wave Hill Riverdale NY Assignment

The history of Wave Hill reads like an account of the developing nation, state, and city. William Lewis Morris was a great-great grandson of Gouverneur Morris of Revolutionary fame. Gouverneur Morris is supposed to have written the Preamble to the United States Constitution. A powerful family in Colonial New York, the Morrises owned considerable lands in what is now the Bronx, though then the southernmost part of Westchester County. William Lewis Morris' heritage, therefore, recalls events in the early history of the United States, and the state and city of New York. As great landowners, the Morrises were one among a select number of families, including the Roosevelts, the van Rensselaers, and others who exercised near-feudal control over large portions of the Hudson Valley. William Lewis Morris was a jurist. Whether his profession affected his choice of style for Wave Hill is unknown, but the mansion's Greek Revival architecture - a style widely popular at the time - certainly brings to mind Athenian democracy and cherished Western concepts of the rule of law and fundamental human rights. The style is appropriate for the descendent of a man who was one of the nation's Founding Fathers and a Framer of the Constitution. As the Greek Revival was also an attempt to recapture the Classical canons of form and proportion, its ideals also inform many of the aesthetic sensibilities of the time. The rigidity and orderliness of the Greek Revival was also specifically what Romantic art and architecture was reacting against.

The Hudson River School, besides being un-classical in inspiration, was also non-European in origin - an extremely important consideration in a period where Americans were working earnestly to free themselves from cultural dependency, and to establish a culture and a civilization that was uniquely their own:

They saw the land and its people without the condescension of colonialism and had always known the United States as a free and independent nation. They matured in an age of nationalism, egalitarianism, and widespread social reform. A group of artists that sought to capture the nation's present and predict its future emerged from this period. Although these artists were centered mainly in New York, they shared common ideals with the transcendentalists of New England. Rallying to Ralph Waldo Emerson's plea for artists "to ignore the courtly Muses of Europe," they took a step forward both culturally and artistically, determined to show the Old World the transcendental beauty of the young nation. They captured the spirit of romance, the lofty ideals, and spiritual values intrinsic in the American self-concept. These artists saw the beauty of nature as a conduit through which people might connect to a higher truth, the awesome power of God.

Wave Hill would be one small piece in this grand design; in this search for deeper, transcendental meaning in the American experience.

The house was purchased in 1866 by William Henry Appleton, a prominent publisher. Appleton was the son of Daniel Appleton, founder of D. Appleton & Company, a major publishing firm that continued to exist until recently, though merged into other imprints. It was during William Henry Appleton's long residence at Wave Hill that it first earned its reputation as a Mecca for the leading cultural figures. Appleton's forty years' residency at the estate also corresponds neatly with another major change in American society - the replacement of a traditional, agrarian society with an industrial one. Wave Hill's purchase by a publishing tycoon marked a transfer in ownership for the old Colonial elite, to an individual whose business interests marked him as one of the "new men" of the industrial age. The landscape of New York, like other cities, was changing. Factories and railroads replaced old-fashioned shops and quaint dirt roads. Business expanded to enormous proportions as financiers and industrialists - the infamous "Robber Barons" - used every technique, legal and unscrupulous, to beat back the competition, and buy each other out. Men like Astor, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Morgan reaped huge profits from the misery of others. The Astors made huge amounts of money by housing immigrants in thousands of cheap and squalid tenements.

The blighted urban landscape was a far cry from the idylls of the Romantics. A few lines from Edgar Allen Poe, himself a master of literary Romanticism, capture the enthusiasm for nature on which the Hudson River School was founded:

Fair river! In thy bright, clear flow

Of crystal, wandering water,

Thou art an emblem of the glow

Of beauty -- the unhidden heart

The playful maziness of art

In old Alberto's daughter.

One can almost see the view from Wave Hill. Truly, it was during this age, that the house became a refuge from the ugliness of the created world of humankind.

The natural world of which Wave Hill remained a part was fast disappearing everywhere else. Nature could be preserved in two very different ways. The painters of the Hudson River School - Asher B. Durand, Frederick Church, Thomas Cole, and others - could capture this world on canvas. The images they created could serve as mementos of what was being lost, but they could also lead others to discover that which artists, writers, and would-be philosophers found so compelling. Through these pictures, men and women of limited means could "visit" these remote landscapes. If they had just a little money for train fare, and a few days to spend away from work, they could actually tour these places themselves. Many of the beautiful sights captured by these artists were not far from New York. The Catskills was a particular favorite of the Hudson River School, as were the wonderful and majestic views of the movement's namesake river, especially when glimpsed from some apparently pristine location further upstate. Thomas Cole painted a view of this are that appears as a warning to those who do not see, or do not wish to see, what is happening to the natural world:

Only in 1843 was Cole able to paint a more reportorial view of the area as it had probably looked some seven years earlier. In the later work, titled River in the Catskills..., it is a somewhat depressing scene of deforestation that meets the viewer's eye. The foreground is littered with felled trees and, on the left, where the maple tree stands in the Metropolitan's painting [View on the Catskill -- Early Autumn], a man with an ax surveys a bare landscape now traversed by a railroad in the middle distance.

The early date of this painting is disturbing. It underscores how quickly the destruction of nature was already progressing even before Wave Hill was built. The Industrial Revolution had barely begun, in the United States, at the time Cole constructed his alarming portrait of a devastated landscape.

In Appleton's day, as well, the City of New York had become the quintessence of modernity. Already the nation's largest city many years before Wave Hill's foundation was laid, New York was rapidly maturing into the world's metropolis. By the end… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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