I was driving north headed for Maine. Seeking to avoid the congestion around New York City, I drove up Interstate 87. I wanted a break point in my trip and noticed the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. It’s a few miles off of the highway and I thought I’d make a quick stop, learn a little about Cole, and be on my way. I was curious if the beauty that inspired Cole in that place was still evident.
Many artists are inspired by place. Few become intertwined with a place as much as Thomas Cole, founder of America’s first major art movement, the Hudson River School and one of America’s major nineteenth-century painters. If you recognize the name, you probably visualize his romantic depictions of the American wilderness. At age 24 he visited the Catskill Mountain region of New York up the Hudson River from New York City. From that point on, he would forever be entranced by its beauty. He spent summers on a farm called Cedar Grove in the town of Catskill, New York on the west bank of the Hudson River. By 1836 he was a year-round resident. He married, started a family, and painted the beauty around him. He wrote, “…[the Catskills] heave from the valley of the Hudson like the subsiding billows of the ocean after a storm.”
I didn’t know much about Cole, though I knew of his influence with the Hudson River School of artists and could name several painting of his that I liked, especially the Voyage of Life, four large canvases depicting a person traveling through four stages in life. Born in England, Cole emigrated with his family to the US in 1818 when he was nineteen. They settled first in Ohio, but Cole soon moved east to Philadelphia. He started in portrait painting, but soon turned to landscapes. Primarily self-taught, he spend time in Philadelphia where he learned from the artists of the Philadelphia Academy.
The best way to describe the Thomas Cole National Historic Site is comprehensive. It is not a typical historic site, if there is such a thing, but, fittingly, a fascinating combination of the elements that defined Cole himself: art, history, nature, the environment. You can learn about life in the nineteenth century, but the story revolves around Cole.
Though close to the Hudson, the river is not visible from the property, which slopes down from the house. Even the mountain views are not apparent when standing in front of the house. But as you climb the stairs to the porch, the sweeping view west suddenly appears and you instantly understand why Cole wanted to paint here and to stay here. The power of place hits, you want to pick up a paintbrush and attempt to capture the view.
Inside the main house, a federal style residence built in 1815, you can roam the rooms. Sit in the parlor where the walls come alive with the rich colors of Cole’s paintings in a stunning multimedia installation. In another room, a motion detector triggers more multimedia that appears in various spots throughout the room. Upstairs is an exhibition about mixing colors and other insights into the artist’s process. The house also includes a temporary art exhibit and spots scattered throughout that encouraged visitor engagement with the mountain views and thinking about the artist’s perspective. Fortunately, the site encourages budding artists at every turn.
The property also includes other gems including Cole’s 1839 studio where he painted the Voyage of Life, completed in 1840. It features original easels and artist tools and you can see how the availability of light affected his work. A modern gallery called the New Studio houses ongoing temporary exhibitions.
In 1835 Cole wrote “The most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive characteristic of American scenery is its wildness.” As developing industry crept up the river and railroads threatened the grand views, he began to advocate for protecting and preserving the natural wildness. He recognized that industrial development unchecked could have a negative impact on the beauty that he captured in his art.
The property is not large and the house not grand; but rarely have I seen a historic site offer so many elements that help the visitor understand the person it represents. And the discovery is not limited to the site itself. The Hudson River School Art Trail allows you to walk in the artists’ footsteps and visit 8 stops within a fifteen mile radius of the Cole house. You can see the views that inspired America’s early landscape painters. The staff at the site also commissioned an excellent children’s book that is available online and in hard copy.
Thomas Cole died suddenly in 1848, only 47 years old, and is buried in a local cemetery. He is recognized as the founder of the first major art movement in America and to learn his story, there is no better place than his home Cedar Grove, in Catskill, New York. In 1834 he wrote:
O Cedar Grove! Whene’er I think to part
From thine all peaceful shades my aching heart
Is like to his who leaves some blessed shore
A weeping exile ne’er to see it more…