Painted circa 1873, October on the Hudson is one of Francis Silva's most successful forays in the luminist idiom, characterized by an emphasis on openness, clarity and a sense of preternatural calm. Silva's talent in transposing the light of the changing times of day is evident in the translucent veils of color used to capture the gentle glow of the clouds as they reflect the light of the sun. The artist's refined use of color, deliberately applied nuances of tinted light and crystalline surfaces of calm waters in this important work define Silva's unique and celebrated pictorial vision.
Luminism, deemed by scholar John Wilmerding as "the culminating phase of Hudson River Painting," (American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1980, p.1) reflected the particularly American consciousness of the effects of light and atmosphere and is widely considered to be the aesthetic counterpart to Ralph Waldo Emerson's treatise Nature and the writings of Henry David Thoreau. While the Luminist movement was not formally categorized until 1954 by noted art historian J.I.H. Baur, artists' preoccupation with depicting a nature of empty quietude can easily be found in the works of Silva's predecessors Fitz Henry Lane, Martin Johnson Heade and Sanford Robinson Gifford, among others. Baur noted that luminist "technique was a polished and meticulous realism in which there is no sign of brushwork, no trace of Impressionism, the atmospheric effects being achieved by infinitely careful gradations of tone, by the most exact study of the relative clarity of near and far objects and by a precise rendering of the variations in texture and color produce by direct or reflected rays." (as quoted in J.A. Craig, Fitz H. Lane: An Artist's Voyage through Nineteenth-Century America, Charleston, South Carolina, 2006, p. 153)
An untrained artist, Silva set up his studio in New York in 1867 following a brief tour in the military during the Civil War. Possessed by a certain wanderlust that led him to travel extensively, Silva traversed the coast in search of subject matter. In the 1870s, he made frequent trips up the Hudson River, recording the sites in a series of extensive sketches and painting back in his studio. Mark Mitchell writes, "By far the most famous of Silva's themes from this early period was not formal, but geographic: the Hudson River...his Hudson River scenes are among his most charming and effective early works... Perhaps the phenomenon is best explained as a serendipitous consequence of time and geography, of Silva's concurrent artistic maturation and awareness of his Hudson River School predecessors on their turf." (exhibition catalogue, Francis A. Silva: In His Own Light, New York, 2002, pp. 33-34).
October on the Hudson, a magnificent, large-scale example of Silva's Hudson River subjects, typifies his work from the early 1870s. Silva has carefully rendered the reflection of the warm light on the faint ripples in the water and the gleaming white sails of the boat in the foreground. Baur notes, "In the hands of Silva and some others, the subtle manipulation of light and atmosphere was an aesthetic device that transcended naturalism and became an almost abstract means of expressing feeling-- or 'sentiment' in nineteenth-century terminology. That Silva was aware of this extra dimension to light is apparent in one of his rare pronouncements on art: 'A picture must be more than a skillfully painted canvas;--it must tell something. Some men can never paint from memory or feeling--they give us only cold facts in the most mannered way. Many of our artists learn certain artists' tricks and then repeat them continually, with no idea of the deeper meaning of the art, but only of the outside of things, and very trivial things at that. All earnestness of purpose is lost, and with them art becomes a useless field of affectation where their tricks of color and handling are displayed. The subject must convey no sentiment--call up no emotion, awaken no interest." (J.I.H. Baur, "Francis A. Silva, Beyond Luminsim," in Antiques, November 1980, p. 1018)