Ever wonder where the art is stored at the WFMA, and what's in there anyway? Join MSU professor Todd Giles as he unlocks the vault!



William Guy Wall and John Hill

The Hudson River Portfolio, 1820-1825
Engraving, hand-colored aquatint

Museum purchase, 1975-1992


This episode of The Vault Unlocked is part of the exhibition Wilderness Passing: The Hudson River Portfolio, 1820–1825 guest curated by Todd GilesTodd Giles, PhD, Professor of English.


Cool shades and dews are round my way,
And silence of the early day;
'Mid the dark rocks that watch his bed,
Glitters the mighty Hudson spread,
Unrippled, save by drops that fall
From shrubs that fringe his mountain wall;
And o'er the clear still water swells
The music of the Sabbath bells.

~ William Cullen Bryant, “A Scene on the Banks of the Hudson”


Representations of the American landscape from the mid-1700s to the early 1800s tended to be documentary rather than artistic in style, focusing primarily on topographical views of towns and harbors. From there, artists’ attention turned to the distinctive landscape of the Eastern United States. Examples of this shift in representation include books like Joshua Shaw’s Picturesque Views of American Scenery (1820) and William Guy Wall’s The Hudson River Portfolio (1820–1825), both comprised of etchings by John Hill.

In the summer of 1820, Irish-born Wall (1792–1864) set out on an extended sketching tour of New York’s Hudson River Valley. Upon his return, Wall worked with English-born Hill (1770–1850), who turned a selection of Wall’s original watercolor scenes from the trip into a series of hand-colored etchings known as aquatints. The ensuing twenty prints were published in New York City by Henry J. Megarey under the title of The Hudson River Portfolio.

Highlighting 212 miles of the 315-mile course of the Hudson River from Lake Luzerne to Governor’s Island near Manhattan, this collaborative collection of etchings, paired with descriptive text written by John Agg, were foundational in the development not only of American printmaking, but were also highly inspirational to the burgeoning Hudson River School of landscape painters as well. The founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole, likewise took his own trip through the Hudson Valley in the summer of 1825 in search of artistic inspiration.

Like most early American books of engravings from the 18th and 19th centuries, The Hudson River Portfolio was issued serially in small groups of plates. According to its prospectus, the complete Portfolio was to originally consist of twenty-four prints produced in six installments, each containing four aquatints with their accompanying texts by Agg. That number was lessened to twenty prints. Between one and two hundred copies of each original plate were produced, but the prints proved so popular that thousands of individual impressions were subsequently printed and sold in the late 1820s and 1830s. A second complete edition of the Portfolio was published in 1828 by G. & C. H. Carvill, who sometimes bound together prints from the three known states produced by the Portfolio’s three different publishers. The collection held by the WFMA is likewise made up of impressions printed throughout the 1820s and 1830s.

Although American artists were starting to show an interest in depicting the sublime grandeur of the then still sparsely colonized Hudson River Valley in the early 1820s, the images of The Hudson River Portfolio show the ways in which settlers were already altering the natural environment, whether through the building of roads, mills, forts, towns, or even through tourism. An anonymous writer for the Literary World, in reviewing the National Academy of Design exhibition in 1847, addressed this issue in relation to the landscape paintings being produced at this time, saying,

The axe of civilization is busy with our old forests, and artisan ingenuity is fast sweeping away the relics of our infancy. . . . What was once the wild and picturesque haunts of the Red Man, and where the wild deer roamed in freedom, are becoming the abodes of commerce and the seats of manufacturers. Yankee enterprise has little sympathy with the picturesque and it behooves our artists to rescue from its grasp the little that is left, before it is too late.

It is an interesting concept—artist as rescuing archivist and visual historian. This is precisely what many of the Hudson River painters did in turning to the nation’s still largely-untamed landscapes for inspiration at a time when Americans were looking for a sense of national identity to set themselves off from the more cultivated European tradition. As Cole put it in an 1835 piece titled “Essay on American Scenery,”

In civilized Europe the primitive features of scenery have long since been destroyed or modified. . . . And to this cultivated state our western world is fast approaching; but nature is still predominant, and there are those who regret that with the improvements of cultivation the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away; for those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted, affect the mind with a more deep toned emotion than aught which the hand of man has touched. Amid them the consequent associations are of God the creator—they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things.

Painters like Cole, Asher Duran, and John Kensett were motived by the belief that, as Bayard Taylor put it in 1868, “all landscapes, whatever may be their features, have a distinct individuality, and express a sentiment of their own.” This “sentiment” for many early American artists and writers, including Transcendentalist writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, was philosophical and spiritual. As Emerson posited in Nature (1832), “Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things?” In other words, nature is reflective of and can teach us about our own human nature.

While America did not yet have a unique art or architecture of its own (if you exclude that of Native peoples, of course)—and American literature was still in its nascent stages with the early writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and others—what it did have over Europe was an overabundance of majestic wilderness where sublime encounters with the divine were still possible. Whether depicting thunderstorms, waterfalls, mountains, dramatic sunsets, or the mighty Hudson itself, the painters who followed in Wall’s footsteps worked to invoke the feelings of awe, amazement (and sometime fear) that conjured up a sense of spirituality and interconnectivity with nature. These divinely-imbued landscapes, as many saw them, symbolized America’s promised prosperity and limitless natural resources, offering immersive and transformative experiences for their viewers.

What Wall presents in The Hudson River Portfolio is neither a wholly realistic view of the negative changes wrought by white Europeans on the environment, nor some pre-colonization fantasy depicting the interconnectivity of Native peoples with the untrammeled landscape that many of the Hudson River School painters produced; rather, he provides us with an idealized coupling of nature and culture. His is a view of harmony rather than disruption. For example, in Glenn’s Falls, the bridge and mill spanning the river appear to add a harmonizing horizontal balance to the otherwise rocky and turbulent falls. What was once sublime is now tamed through human rationality and ingenuity. Similarly, in Palisades, the 350- to 550-foot-tall cliffs along the lower Hudson between Jersey City to Haverstraw, New York have become a tourist attraction for steamboat passengers setting out to take in the natural drama.

The prevailing idea at the time was that humanity could positively shape the landscape without fundamentally altering it for the worse—that’s at least what the boosters were saying. James Fennimore Cooper’s narrator describes this sentiment at the beginning of The Pioneers (1823), the first of his Leather Stocking novels set in and around the Hudson River Valley:

In short, the whole district is hourly exhibiting how much can be done, in even a rugged country, and with a severe climate, under the domination of mild laws and where every man feels a direct interest in the prosperity of a commonwealth of which he knows himself to for a part. The expedients of the pioneers who first broke ground in the settlement of this country, are succeeded by the permanent improvements of the yeoman, who intends to leave his remains to moulder under the sod which he tills, or, perhaps, of the son, who, born in the land, piously wishes to linger around the grave of his father.

But as the previous quotes highlight—as does the following one by Cooper and Cole’s close friend Washington Irving, author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1819)—the beloved Hudson River Valley during Wall’s time was indeed at the precipice of permanent change:

Here are locked up in mighty forests that have never been invaded by the axe; deep umbrageous valleys where the virgin soil has never been outraged by the plough; bright streams flowing in untasked idleness, unburdened by commerce, unchecked by the mill-dam. This mountain zone is in effect the great poetical region of our country; resisting, like the tribes which once inhabited it, the taming of civilization.

However you read the political and/or cultural meaning undergirding the individual etchings in The Hudson River Portfolio, it is important to recognize that they are some of the finest artworks produced on paper in 19th century America. Their value lies not only in their aesthetic, historical, and narrative qualities, but also in the way they helped make people aware of the beauty of the American landscape and stimulated a sense of national identity and pride of place not dissimilar to the novels of Cooper, short stories of Irving, and poetry of William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Works Consulted

Driscoll, John. All that is Glorious Around us: Paintings from the Hudson River School. Cornell UP, 1997.

Novak, Barbara. Nature & Culture: American Landscapes and Painting, 1825–1875. Oxford UP, 2007.

Wilton, Andrew and Tim Barringer. American Sublime, Twenty-Five Paintings in the  United States, 1820–1880. Princeton UP, 2002.

The Hudson River Portfolio from the Permanent Collection of the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at MSU Texas

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