Twitter LinkedIn

Cedar Grove: The Thomas Cole National Historic Site

By Barry Dougherty

CATSKILL, N.Y. - When Thomas Cole wrote in his poem The Wild, "Let me transport you to those wild Blue Mountains that rear their summits near the Hudson's wave," he clearly kept his promise. To stand before a Thomas Cole painting is to submerge oneself in nature's splendor. Not just any nature, mind you, but Catskills nature.
            "He had this fateful trip," says Elizabeth Jacks, the director of Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. "He came up the Hudson River in 1825 on a boat and landed here - we believe at Catskill Point. We have paintings from that trip, so we know exactly where he was."
            Long considered America's leading landscape painter, Cole made forays into this majestic countryside, and they eventually brought him to live at Cedar Grove, a farm owned by local merchant John A. Thomson. Today, Cedar Grove, which was built in 1815, is rapidly capturing the attention of landscape artists, as well as the general public, who are fascinated with Cole's artistry.
            "The light is so exquisite, and those mountains acquire this wonderful glow, especially when the sun goes around behind the mountains later in the day," says contemporary Greene County artist James Coe of the region Cole so brilliantly captured in his works.
            While the original land that encompassed Cedar Grove has been diminished through various subdivisions, as well as the construction of the nearby Rip Van Winkle Bridge in the 1930s, the home still stands - a quaint reminder of a more rural and placid time.
            That almost was not the case. Having fallen into disrepair, Cedar Grove was saved from the wrecking ball in 1998 when the Greene County Historical Society purchased the property. Declared a National Historic Site in 1999, the house opened to the public in time to celebrate Thomas Cole's 200th birthday in 2001. "In 11 months, the buildings went from falling down to beautiful, it was an incredible marathon," notes Jacks of the monumental undertaking to restore the homestead.
            A tour of the modest home gives insight into this Renaissance man, who not only painted but also expressed himself through philosophy, poems, essays and music. Even the Aolean harp that stands majestically by a window in the west parlor of the house was designed by Cole. He often commented that it was so delicate that if he placed it on the porch the breeze would pluck its strings.
            Wandering through rooms that have been faithfully restored to their original appeal, visitors learn that when he first arrived at Cedar Grove, Cole lived in a small building on the property that no longer exists. In 1836, he moved into the main house when he married Maria Bartow, one of John Thomson's nieces. The family unit consisted of Thomson (or "Uncle Sandy," as his devoted extended family called him), and Maria's three spinster sisters. It is also where the Cole children were born and raised, and where Cole died in 1848 at the age of 47.
            Each room paints a picture of life in Cedar Grove as deftly as Cole painted a Hudson Valley sunset. The west parlor where he and Maria were married is furnished with pieces reflecting the times. While not all of the furniture is Thomas Cole's, there are many items of his that help to personalize the home. A copy of his painting "Angels Ministering to Christ in the Wilderness" hangs above the fireplace. Situated on a pedestal, preserved under glass, lay the tools of his craft. Cole's painting palette with some of his pigments and his paint box with an Italian landscape painted inside the top portion are carefully laid out as reverently as pieces on an altar.
            Visitors can feel the artist's touch at every turn. On display is a simple tray featuring a scene Cole painted that was used in the kitchen. The banister leading to the upstairs bedrooms, made of tiger maple, glistens as it did when Cole's own skilled hands held on for support. His top hat and its leather carrying case sitting upon a trunk monogrammed "T.C." share a corner of his bedroom. It is likely that the hat was never worn in Catskill, but was donned on his forays into New York City for any number of society events the popular artist was invited to attend.
            Among the delicate furnishings and dinnerware, visitors are never far from the focus of Cole's world - drawings, sketches and paintings are showcased in all of the rooms throughout the house. Along with some of Cole's work, there are paintings by Sara Cole, his sister, and from his most gifted student, Frederic Church. Also featured are works by prominent Hudson School members, such as Charles Herbert Moore.
            The new treasure in this trove of riches is Cole's studio, situated not far from the main house. According to Jacks, "The studio is divided into two parts. The western portion was Cole's painting room and the eastern portion was a barn. It was a storehouse for the man who lived here, so we are restoring, at this juncture, Cole's painting room. The other half of the building we are eventually going to turn into a visitors center." What makes this restoration even more monumental is that this is considered to be the first purpose-built artist's studio in America.
            "It's a pretty amazing story," says Jacks, "Cole really did not have a lot of resources. He did not have wealth; he was not able to build himself an elaborate villa on a hill. This studio was a room in a barn, literally, and he did not own this property. He had to ask Uncle Sandy, 'Would you allow me to have a painting room in your storehouse?' And that really tells a lot about Cole's life and the conditions he was working under."
            The work that Cole produced in this studio changed the course of art in America, and the building deserves as much attention as the artist. As Jacks explains, "He had a hand in designing the studio. It was still being built when he was in there making sure it was right for him. So we're pretty sure he'd be the one who decided to have that large northern light put in there. There's a window that's much larger than all the windows in the rest of the building, and up higher, and it's clearly designed to bring in northern light, which is the best for artists.
            "There exists this wonderful letter from Cole where he describes the studio and he describes the salmon-colored brick, so we know the brick wasn't painted, for example. He described the way that the wood divides the brick into sections. So it's a nice record in his own words, in his own hand that that's what it looked like."
            Jim Cramer, another Greene County landscape artist, is delighted that the studio is being restored. "Anything that they can do to preserve anything of Thomas Cole's place in art history is welcomed - these places were almost lost," he says. "And now they're going to have his studio rebuilt, probably close to what it was, hopefully, and have some of his materials around. It would just be almost like a church."
            Warm and welcoming, Cedar Grove clearly inspired Cole - he needed only to open his eyes and take in the scope of the Catskills. "The view from the porch, which is facing the Catskill Mountains - that would be the Blackhead Range - is one of the most awesome sights you can think of. It is amazing," says Cramer, who has painted several scenes from Cedar Grove.
            To envision Cole heading into the wilderness, beckoned by the scenery before him, one has to erase almost two centuries of progress to truly walk in his footsteps. As Coe notes, "We have the advantage of all kinds of gadgets for helping us get out into the field with ease. Everything I need I can get into a backpack - easel, tripod - and head off without having to carry anything in my hands."
            It must have been a very different experience for Cole, as Jacks muses, "I don't know how he did this. Now we have roads, but back then travel must have been very difficult, and the places he painted are very remote; even today some of them take quite a climb. Some of them are titled, 'Catskills at Dawn.' I don't know how he would get there at dawn. Did he spend the night in the Catskills? But he was definitely an adventurer and a climber and kind of a pioneering spirit."
            It is that pioneering spirit that delivered Cole to his destiny. His greatest achievements have been preserved on canvas and, thankfully, the place where that history was conceived is now being preserved as well. From his early works, such as "Lakewood Dead Trees," 1825, and "The Falls of Kaaterskill," 1826, which solidified his title as founder of the Hudson River School; to his masterpieces, the five-part series "The Course of Empire" (now on view at the New-York Historical Society's exhibition "The Hudson River School at the New-York Historical Society: Nature and the American Vision") and "Voyages of Life," Cole found unending inspiration from the region that looks as if it, too, has been ardently painted on nature's own canvas.
            "He saw America's mountains as our national monuments, something to be proud of," says Jacks of Cole's vision. "At that time, Americans were still looking to Europe for their source of anything with value. Whereas Cole was saying, 'We've got our own valuable things here, we don't have to look to the Old Masters, we don't have to look to Europe. America's landscape is untouched by mankind.'"
            In keeping with Cole's passion for the Catskills as the consummate subject, Cedar Grove will be exhibiting the works of George Inness through October 30.
            Inness (1825-1894), who born in the Hudson Valley near Newburgh, N.Y., chose not to follow in his father's footsteps as a grocer but to paint instead. At the age of 16, after his family moved to Newark, Inness studied briefly with New Jersey artist John Jesse Barker. Although he served a two-year apprenticeship as an engraver with a New York mapmaking firm in 1841, painting was to be Inness's destiny. He studied with Régis Gignoux and was heavily influenced by the works of Claude Lorrain and the Seventeenth Century Dutch landscape masters.
            It was the work of the leading Hudson River School painters, however - particularly Cole - that Inness emulated in his early work. "It's particularly meaningful to have George Inness at Thomas Cole's home because they shared a common mission, which was to represent the divine in their art," says Jacks. "They viewed nature as a manifestation of the divine."
            Inness's later work, however, takes on a different tone. Being a follower of Emanuel Swedenborg's religion, he believed that matter is spiritually charged. As in his "Pastoral Landscape at Sunset," 1884, his technique shows his desire to represent the divine. He is less sharp in his focus and more suggestive, less specific. "Brushy" and "fuzzy" have been used to describe his later style, and one critic went so far as to call it "lumps of green cheese." Inness himself explained that his later works differed from his earlier by admitting, "You must suggest to me reality, you can never show me reality."
            There are eight Inness paintings on view at Cedar Grove, some of them from private collections and rarely seen. Along with "Pastoral Landscape at Sunset" are "Across the Hudson Valley, Foot Hills of the Catskills," 1868, "Landscape," undated, "Morristown, NJ," 1869, "Sunset in the Catskills," undated, "Sunset, "1878-1879, "Landscape," circa 1880, and "The Coming Storm," 1878.
            Cedar Grove is not just the restoration of wood and brick, it is also restoring Cole's passion for the Catskills region. The house, the studio and the view all work together to let visitors experience not only that "they are there," but to feel that Cole and his followers are there, too.