Kensett was among the most renowned painters of the second generation of the Hudson River School. Widely regarded as the first truly American school of painting, the group took shape in the middle decades of the nineteenth century and is most closely identified with the work of Cole who, like Kensett after him, turned to the native landscape, particularly the areas around the Hudson River in New York, for inspiration.
On the Hudson shows a clearing on a hillside in a forest overlooking the Hudson. On the left side of the canvas are two young trees that unify the verdant foreground with the luminous sky above, drawing the eye back in space, past the dense woods at the water’s edge and towards the river scene in the distance, where boats drift on the tranquil surface of the Hudson. With an oval format that hugs the edges of the landscape, On the Hudson is a comforting, or “sweet” picture, as Kensett’s critics often described his work. Yet, nature is not untouched here. Small daubs of red and black paint indicate the presence of tourists in the forest, while the boats in the distance signal the encroachment of commerce on the wilderness. Although nature and civilization exist in peaceful harmony in this picture, the dense barrier of trees before the water’s edge seems to want to protect against the trappings of the outside world.