Thomas Cole Historic Site

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By Robert Pucci

When you exit the parking lot you move back in time, into the nineteen century, to the days of the early Republic and the birth of the first art movement that the new country could call its own. While the democracy that was established in the United States was seen as progressive, the culture of the new republic was seen as purely derivative of European models, dependent on the decorative arts and literature imported from England and France. Copley may have impressed the British with his portraits while the French celebrated Franklin as a scientist and frontier sage, but  American culture was not taken seriously. Thomas Cole changed that when he produced landscapes that represented the raw, untamed and uncivilized vistas north of New York City, by founding the Hudson River School of Art. The house beyond the parking lot is Cedar Grove, his home in Catskill, New York, a national historic site that celebrates his life and art.

  Main House

Main House

Born in England, Cole migrated with his family to Ohio, at first. The young man was trained in textile design and absorbed the traditional visual arts of England. Moving to New York, he made a living engraving and painting portraits. Although entirely self-taught, he developed a talent, proficiency of technique and style that would place him far above the average limner, whose work we tend to define as folk art rather than fine art. One summer he escaped, as he described it, the bustle of the city to paint what one writer has called the “wilder image” of forests, mountains and streams of the Catskills. Settling in the town of Catskill, and establishing a summer studio in an outbuilding of a farm, he painted three views of the Hudson River valley. His two views of Cold Spring and one view of the Catskills were displayed in the window of a bookshop where they caught the attention and admiration of John Trumbull. A Revolutionary War veteran and painter of historic subjects, Mr. Trumbull and a patron from Hartford named Wadsworth, would establish the Athenaeum there that bears his name.

Encouraged and buoyed by their support, Cole returned to Catskill and continued to paint the vistas of creeks, forests and mountains in his favored pinks, purples and lush greens. He admired the rough and uncivilized landscapes that he found there. In painting these vistas he established a new standard for a genre that had been bogged down in classical rules. The trees would not curve gently in the picture plane but be bent, some broken, while the rocks would be craggy and un-sculpted. Signs of human habitation would be limited to the occasional Native American, hiker or artist making their cameos to suggest the grandeur of the scale found in the environment. Cole also felt that he was documenting a disappearing natural legacy. He bemoaned the loggers who were harvesting trees or settlers who were  building farms and villages that despoiled the virgin frontier.

Gaining fame he traveled to Europe and soaked up influences from the British masters Constable, who’s romantic depictions of the countryside and its ruins would influence Cole’s later work (where a ruined tower might often make an appearance) and Turner, who impressed Cole with his bold and dramatic compositions and use of color. In addition to documenting the landscapes he saw in Europe, Cole evolved beyond the wilder images of the Catskills to allegorical painting. In a famous series of four paintings he charted the rise and fall of an empire. He in turn influenced painters like Frederic Church, whose country home Olana is perched on a hill directly opposite the Cole site and presents an opulent contrast to the rather modest farm house that Cole called home.

 The new studio

The new studio

On a very warm and humid day, with the Catskills slightly obscured by haze, I joined visitors who made the pilgrimage to the birthplace of the Hudson River School of Art. I had visited the site before and I was pleasantly surprised by the vast improvements that have been made there. Under the direction of Betsy Jacks, the Executive Director of the site who, over a 15 year tenure with her able staff, knowledgeable volunteers, strong and active board of directors, has transformed the site into a state-of-the-art 21st century museum experience.

The main house and old studio have been restored thanks to grants and fund-raising efforts. While the Cole site, is a national historic site the operating budget of Cedar Grove is raised entirely by the organization, and is only partially augmented by grants. The restoration efforts revealed original paint colors and finishes, including decorative friezes, that were painted by Cole himself as he re-decorated the house in the late 1830’s. One parlor of the house is set up as a small auditorium where a five minute orientation video is displayed on multiple screens disguised as paintings. In the video we hear the words of Cole and gain an understanding of his reverence for his subject matter and his love of the life and family he raised in this house. The other parlor displays artful photographic reproductions of some of Cole’s most iconic works so that the contemporary visitor might gain a sense of what these paintings, now widely scattered around the museums of the world, might have looked like in situ to a visitor in the 1840’s. There are also interactive technologies that enable visitors to experience Cole’s correspondence and gain insight into his other pursuits in poetry, architecture and art theory. For he was, as many creative people were before our century of specialization, a Renaissance man.

The restored parlors on the first floor lead to a second floor where visitors might be surprised by the intrusion of the 21st century. This time it is not state of the art technology, but rather the works of contemporary artists in an exhibition entitled SPECTRUM, which features the works of eleven artists. Responding to a theme developed from Cole’s theory of the use of color in his paintings, their works are bold, some abstract, some conceptual, but they all seem at home mingling with works by Cole and placed within the restored period rooms.

Cole was an architect as well as painter. He finished third in a competition for the design of the Ohio State House.  The final structure which still stands incorporates many of the elements of Cole’s design. In the 1840’s he decided to build a new studio on his property. The result was a tall wooden box in a neo-gothic style with one large north facing window. The studio served as both a working and display space for Cole’s works some of which were quite large in scale. Early in the 20th century the structure was razed, however, as part of the site’s restoration efforts the original foundations were uncovered. Using Cole’s drawings and plans, the studio was reconstructed and is now a  museum quality gallery where world class shows about Cole and the Hudson River School originate and travel to other museums.

Currently there is an excellent example of the shows presented there entitled “Picturesque and Sublime: Thomas Cole’s Trans-Atlantic Inheritance.” It is an exhibition of prints, drawing and paintings that demonstrate how Cole was influenced by his travels to Europe and his encounters with artists and the landscapes of the old world. Partnering with Yale University, the show has many exquisite loans, including a large watercolor by Turner that was reframed for the exhibition. The installation is first rate and the catalog finely printed and handsome.

The last stop in the tour is a glimpse into Cole’s working environment, as his old studio has been restored with his easels and tools. The spartan room is exposed brick and half timbered. There are easels, a drafting table, brushes along with a mortar and pestle that would have been used to grind raw materials down to make pigment for paints. The light from the north is cool and seemingly faint.  But standing in the room one can imagine Cole returning from a two-day sojourn that might have started at the Catskill creek and progressed into the mountains where he would have collected sketches. Entering the studio we can see him preparing his colors and setting about roughing in a composition, progressing layer after layer until the sketches are transformed into large scale landscapes. In fact, many of Cole’s most iconic works of art, including the Oxbow, were painted here.

Betsy Jacks is the spritely and energetic Executive Director of the Cole site. Sitting in her office, in a building across the street from the site, she talks about ambitious plans for the future of the site and tourism in the region. There is a proposed skyway project currently underway. It seeks to build a direct pedestrian path from the Thomas Cole site that would lead across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge ascending to Olana on the Columbia County side. This project would attract new tourists and also improve the experience of those who wish to take the Hudson River School of Art trail. Their brochure, with a map, guides you to sites actually painted by the artists of the school. Ms. Jacks describes the strides made by the site and is justifiably excited by the prospect of a project that might quadruple the number of visitors to the Cole site. She seem undaunted by the prospect of moving from perhaps 25 to 30 thousand visitors a years to a projected total of 100 thousand.  According to Ms. Jacks these projections are based on the popularity of the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie. Will the Cole House be able to handle this increase?

The site has already developed some adaptive strategies. From being open only on weekends, the site is now open every day of the week, save for Mondays. Tours are available during the morning hours given by well-trained guides. But they quickly fill giving way to touring at your own pace in the afternoon. Plans are underway for improved access and fencing.  In the meantime visitors can enjoy a relative serenity.

On the porch overlooking the Catskills, whose purple forms rise in the distance, one can share a vantage point that Cole often used as the basis of a painting. Today visitors are offered the opportunity to take a piece of paper and a pencil then sit for a while and sketch the mountains that captivated Cole. With autumn upon us, there is no better time to visit this gem to gain insight into our first great American art movement and the beauty that Cole saw outside his front door.