Pre-Raphaelist and Romantic Depictions of the Adirondacks

Various religious groups, many of which practiced Christian denominations including Roman Catholicism and Separatism, settled in and around the Adirondack Park.  As a result, Christianity influenced settlers’ perceptions of the Adirondacks and many 19th century paintings of the region.  For European settlers exposed to the enlightenment and the more recent romantic and mythical pantheism of the 19th century, the wilderness provided evidence of God’s creative power and God’s presence in nature (Terrie in Schneider 160).  Joel T. Headley, author of The Adirondack; or Life in the Woods, expressed this notion, stating “God appears to have wrought in these old mountains with His highest power designed to leave a symbol of His omnipotence” (Headley in Schneider 163).  Evidently, for artists like Thomas Cole and William James Stillman, God was the artist of the natural world. As landscape painters, Cole and Stillman assumed the role of God’s copyist, attempting to depict nature in the way that God intended it to be viewed and in a way that conveyed God itself, who they believed was the greater force governing humans and the natural environment (Tatham 31).

William James Stillman

William James Stillman, a landscape painter in the Adirondacks during the middle of the 19th century, was keenly aware of this relationship between art, God, and the environment. In fact, he embraced the English idea of Pre-Raphaelitism, which stressed the inextricable connection between religion and art (Mandel 16).  Pre-Raphaelitism styles were actually similar to realism in their level of detail, but they were also intended to recognize God through their specificity and focus on particular truths (Mandel 15).  This is clear in Stillman's Philosopher's Camp (1858) (right), which carefully details the trees, their individual leaves, and their reflection of the light.  In this way, Stillman’s paintings were pure, detailed illustrations intended to worship nature and its sacred perfection (Mandel 16). 

Thomas Cole                                                                                                                                              

Thomas Cole, like Stillman, aspired to convey the spiritual essence of nature (Driscoll 62) and illustrate the greater forces that governed it (Tatham 31).  Thus, Cole painted the wildest landscapes that he believed were closest to their God-given states (Tatham 31).  This view of nature is exemplified in Schroon Mountain (1838) (right), which is characterized by omniscient clouds, untamed vegetation, and a tall mountain that reaches endlessly into the sky.  The dark forboding sky along with the steep mountaintop in this painting evoke the sublimity and power of nature.

Cole also continually inquired about the relationship between humans other living things (Tatham 31).  In Schroon Lake (1846) (lower left), he paints a vast sky and a very small log cabin.  The sky dominates the scene, suggesting the landscape’s spiritual significance and predominance over man (Mandel 44).  In addition, he painted the landscape in a frame-within-a-frame format, a style also used in his painting The Cross in the Wilderness (1846) (lower right; not a scene in the Adirondacks) (Mandel 44).  These paintings belong to Cole’s spiritual series, The Cross and the World, and the frame-within-a-frame portrayal of the landscapes is intended to distance the viewer from the spirituality of the landscape and “the sublimity of the untamed wildness, and the majesty of the eternal mountains” (Cole in Mandel 44).  In this way, Cole demonstrates his belief in God’s greater power and his control over nature and humans (Tatham 31).  

Overall, it is clear that these romantic depictions of Adirondack landscapes allude to the spiritual significance of nature and how nature demonstrates God’s relation to humans. For painters like Cole and Stillman, the Adirondacks provided evidence of God and were worthy of reverence.  However, human progress still trumped notions of environmental conservation, and romantic perceptions of nature failed to prevent logging efforts and exploitation of the region’s resources.


                                                     Schroon Lake (1846)                               Cross in the Wilderness (1846)                                             


Works Cited

Driscoll, John Paul and Howat, John K.  John Frederick Kensett: An American Master. Worcester Art Museum, 1985. Print.

Ferber, Linda S. The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision. New York City: International Publications Inc, 2009. Print.

Mandel, P. C. Fair Wilderness: American Paintings in the Collection of The Adirondack Museum (A. W. Gilborn, Ed.). New York: The Adirondack Museum, 1990. Print.

Schneider, Paul. The Adirondacks: A History of America’s First Widlerness. New York: Henry and Holt Inc, 1997. Print.

Terrie, Philip G. Contested Terrain: A New History of Nature and People in the Adirondacks (Ed. A.W. Gilborn, Ed.). Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1997. Print.


Image Sources (in order of appearance)

Banner courtesy of:

Philosopher's Camp courtesy of:

Schroon Mountain courtesy of:

Schroon Lake courtesy of:

Cross in the Wilderness courtesy of: