Although primarily a self-taught artist, Robert Walter Weir studied at the American Academy of the Fine Arts in New York, and later worked in Florence under the neoclassical painter Pietro Benvenuti. In 1833, Weir became an instructor of drawing at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he would teach for over forty years. Throughout his years at West Point, Weir had the opportunity to mentor some of the most distinguished figures in art and military of the time, including James Abbott McNeil Whistler and Ulysses S. Grant, gaining a unique perspective for approaching his historical paintings, such as the present work.
At the beginning of Weir’s career at West Point, the artist was commissioned by a U.S. Congressman from New York, Gulian C. Verplanck, to create the present work, Landing of Henry Hudson, 1609, at Verplanck Point, New York. Partly based on his success with this painting for the politician, Weir was later appointed by Congress to create a historical mural for the Rotunda of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. To fulfill this commission, in 1843 the artist produced one of his greatest paintings, Embarkation of the Pilgrims, which still remains on view for Capitol visitors to this day.
The present work depicts the great English explorer Henry Hudson’s third official voyage for the Dutch East India Company in search of a swift route from Europe to Asia through the Arctic Ocean. On September 14, 1609, Hudson and his crew landed in North America on the shores of the river that would later be named in his honor. Their arrival may have been on land that would later become Congressman Verplanck’s family estate in Fishkill, New York, thus providing a personal motivation for the commission of this work. Although the Italian Giovanni da Verrazano had previously proceeded a short distance up this passageway, and the waterway did not actually provide a route to Asia as hoped, Hudson was the first European to fully explore and understand the river’s importance, and the present work celebrates this momentous discovery.
Here, Weir glorifies Hudson as the central focus of the composition. The distinguished leader’s arms outstretch over his crew, mimicking the stance of the chief who waits upon the shore for his arrival. Traces of Weir’s neoclassical roots can be found within the scene, such as in his rendering of the figures with theatrical, gestural poses and the juxtaposition of the dark foreground of the landscape against the luminous waters of the river. These dramatic elements elevate the scene from mere storytelling to a meaningful commemoration of an important moment in American history. As epitomized by this work, Weir himself wrote of art’s power to transcend into the life behind historical narratives: “Art is man’s interpretation of beauty, expressed not only in form and color, but in every truth which can be represented or suggested by poetic words or by pictorial skill...To study the language which all visible objects speak, and by this means to bring out the higher relations which they bear to human thought and life, is the poetry of art.” (as quoted in W.H. Gerdts, J.T. Callow, Robert Weir: Artist and Teacher of West Point, New York, 1976, p. 22)