Mastering the Hudson: A Study of Thomas Cole and His Lasting Impression on the Hudson River Valley
Jessica Friedlander, Marist ’07
Thomas Cole, the father of the Hudson River School, is one of the most nationally recognized painters in American history. His ingenious vision and delicate style helped to shape today’s deep appreciation of American landscapes, paving the way for a new kind of art.
The Painter in the Dark
He sets off, his mind envisioning the adventure ahead. An early robin sings a jeweled melody as he shifts his small canvases and cotton-woven sketchbooks, strapped at his back by a thin, taut stretch of cowhide, and grips tightly his cedar box of pencils. His knuckles are bare and cracked, and the air that tightens his skin is cool and smells of moss. His eyes graze the sky, a temptress; her deep navy-black robes reveal a shine of purple, tinged with orange and pink. It is dark, yet he is able to spot some wisps of heated gold strewn up from the horizon. The sun is on its rise.
Moments later, through the tangled brush and thick pines, he reaches his destination: a nearby patch of soft, overgrown earth littered with shards of rock and sheltered by a few aging oaks; there is just enough clearing to sketch. He meticulously scans the view of the mountainside, his vision streaming over each distant crevasse and grassy hill, picking apart the shadows from the masses of landscape. An assembly of deer distances itself from the woods to lick, slyly, at the brook trembling from the ravine. Its waters foam into delicate pools, playfully splashing into the air, into ozone, into his lungs, trickling back into the studio. His easel and board await the flood; his fresh, crushed pigment sits heavy in the thickening, swirling oil, one of his many sable-haired brushes poised precariously between forefinger and thumb, quivering and wet, barely above the canvas. He breathes deep the fresh vision. He opens his eyes.
He is ready.
At the start of the nineteenth century, the electricity from the French Revolution had charged the air, causing an urgent need for change to thunder throughout Europe and reverberate into America. Classicism made way for a more individual philosophy, in which the emotional aspect of the arts was glorified. It strived to move away from the harsh limitations of the previous ways of thinking that had stressed order, reason, and logic. This new ideal was Romanticism. In breaking free of the old, rigid structure, it encouraged a sort of personal freedom, allowing writers, artists, and philosophers to finally exert their creativity and include their spiritual—not religious—beliefs in their works. In other words, they were allowed to be human, to be natural, to be uninhibited—to be themselves.1
During this time, English Romantic poets such as Byron, Shelley, Keats and Blake were on the rise, spearheading this movement by focusing more on the symbolic and the natural, rather than the restrictions of rationalism. Soon after, this means of expressing oneself bled into American literature, as revealed in the works of Emerson and Thoreau, Whitman and Poe. Literature became loose, more active, and more expressive, and its newfound dreams inevitably bled into the realm of the fine arts. Transcendentalism, a branch of Romanticism with origins near Concord, Massachusetts, inspired artists to challenge even further the scientific and seek the imaginative and spiritual. Of these artists, Thomas Cole would earn renown as the Father of the Hudson River School—a revolutionary breed of painters who, in seeking the raw, uncontrolled beauty of the Hudson River Valley as their subject, immortalized the essence of Romanticism.2
The Father of the Hudson
Cole, born February 1, 1801, was a native of Bolton-le-Moors in Lancashire, England, a historic county recognized for its rich textile industry. At seventeen, his family relocated to Steubenville, Ohio, where the young Cole was taken under the wing of a wandering portrait artist, known only as Stein.3 However, Cole did not succeed as a portrait painter, so he turned to capturing the spellbinding grandeur of landscapes. In the early 1820s, he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, thus expanding his technique and greatly improving his talent. Soon after, Cole moved to New York, where his connections with some very generous patrons changed his life forever.4 One of these was George W. Bruen, a merchant so impressed with Cole’s work that he financed a summer expedition for the painter to study the Hudson Valley. It was there that Cole was able to visit the Catskill Mountain House. The trip unquestionably incited Cole’s passion with the Hudson Valley that so greatly dominated his works.5
The youth stole a sideways glance at his framed work propped in the window and nervously picked at the raw calluses on his fingertips. The view had been magnificently lovely; a gentle, tree-filled hillside gave way to an open marsh on which a family of ducks were fishing, and surrounding it, a lush forest of pines. The lake, in reality, had not been suffocated by the twisting and rotted trunks on his canvas, but no one needed to know. It was his own creation, his expression, his voice—they must simply feel it. The murky waters regurgitated a pale pink sheen from the sun’s dusky rays and, in other places, contrasted well with the greygreen of the clouding atmosphere. He had also added a few stately bucks fleeing in the shadows. He debated eagerly with himself; could he have included some more color to that mossy trunk lying in the foreground? Were the mountains in the distance too subtle? Was it sufficient? The canvas was small, but it was enough, he had decided. Any further, and he would have ruined the message.
The slick streets of the city reflected a chilly overcast from the early evening. There were three men before him: the writer and painter were eagerly discussing his lake with the dead trees, now being wrapped, as the third—a colonel— thumbed gingerly through a fat, leather wallet in his considerable grasp. He eyed the careful splash of oils that, unhooked from its display in the bookstore window, was to sit, wrapped, alongside the two others. He was much older, said he had “dabbled,” too, in oils and poetry. (The young man recalled a slight twist of the lips, a curious purse in the corner of the mouth, as the man said this.) He’d handed him a few stiff bills, fresh and sharp. The youth tried to stifle his grin—SOLD! The man mumbled his thanks to the bookkeeper, turned back to the boy; he felt his cheeks evaporating the rainwater from his coat collar, his bright eyes gleaming with proud embarrassment. The man had said something. Pardon? I “surprise” you? The older man smiled. Yes. At your age, and to paint like this…6
After selling a number of works and coming into contact with some of the East Coast’s most influential patrons, including John Trumbull, Luman Reed, and good friend Asher B. Durand, Cole was becoming a household name. He was in his mid-twenties when he co-founded the National Academy of Design alongside Samuel F.B. Morse and Durand, and in 1829 he toured Italy and France, networking with a number of wealthy patrons, producing more works, and further enhancing his popularity. Some years later, Cole married and settled in the Catskills, where he had embraced his first studio (and later, his home) at Cedar Grove in Catskill.7
During the commission of one of his most famous works, called The Course of Empire, Cole expressed his concern with the frailty of nature and humankind’sinsatiable thirst for industrial growth—a terrifying monster whose only interestwith the natural world was to crush it. Throughout the next two decades untilhis death, this theme helped to feed Cole’s inspiration in promoting the peacefulcoexistence of nature and mankind, thus producing other allegorical works suchas The Voyage of Life and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, as well as HudsonValley-inspired pieces including View on the Catskill: Early Autumn and Home in the Woods.
In the early months of 1843, Cole had documented his worry of financial stability in various letters and poems later published in several New York magazines. Despite his increasing fame, he had felt a considerable anxiety about selling his work. For the next two years, he took under his wing the young Frederic Edwin Church; they agreed to a fee of $300 per year for instruction, with room and board for an additional three dollars per week. Due in large part to Cole’s avant-garde inspiration, Church later became one of the most prominent members of the Hudson River School, famed for pushing the boundaries in his landscape paintings, traveling across continents to capture the exotic vistas of volcanoes, rainforests, icebergs, and magnificent waterfalls.8
The boy’s teacher was in no mood for unnecessary questions. He must learn the rules before he could break them. Draw what it is you see! he’d said, cold and severe, whirling from the sketches toward the ginger-streaked mountainside before them. Easier said than done, the boy grumbled. The wind was bitter for mid- October, much like his teacher’s voice—like a steel rail splitting firewood upon impact. The brittle crack, the dry, unforgiving thud, had echoed in his thoughts as he glared at the back of the painter’s unusually pale neck. The man was a genius, there was no doubt of it; he had eyes like no other, a vision that reached out of his body and wrapped itself around the pines and crags, dipped into valleys, and blew over hills, curved inward and snaked along the grass and hissed, coiling through the air, until it streaked, submissive and obeying, back into the fingertips that regurgitated masterpieces. The boy so desperately struggled to match it, to keep in step. The aching desire to break free, like a grenade in his chest, was difficult to appease. His hands were unsteady; he couldn’t focus. What had these past five months proven? He had trouble staying true to the real, of feeling inspired with simply an exact rendering of his surroundings; he needed more. The trees became boring, and he craved an apocalypse, even if for a moment. He wanted a new color. He wanted a mess. He was ready—and now. He would have it now. Indue time, his teacher sniffed, curiously, eyes gleaming. First he was to “learn the practice; learn to draw. He was to be disciplined.” He would be disciplined. Then, he would be more. He would be great.
The Hudson River School is Born
In the years following his premature death in 1848, Thomas Cole’s work inspired a distinguished class of artists delving into the wondrous landscapes of the Hudson River Valley. The region, a longtime area of economic and historical growth, offered these innovators the artistic freedom they sought and the untainted beauty of the natural world they wished to preserve. Thus, the Hudson River School was formed; a revolutionary breed of painters, poets, and artists who took advantage of the wilderness of the Hudson River Valley, the Catskills, Niagara Falls, and the White Mountains to the north. Their highly esteemed movement dominated American art of the 19th century and perfected the representation of man’s humility to—and peaceful connections with—the astounding grandeur of nature.9
Due in large part to the values of European Romanticism, those inspired within the Hudson River School, such as Asher B. Durand, Frederic Church, Jasper Cropsey, and George Inness, were able to explore the unknown wilderness in a quest to establish the bond between humans and nature. These artists, proud of the raw and pure bounty their country offered, rejected the stuffy portraiture of old classicism in an effort to promote and exploit the wild creativity that is unique to landscape painting.10 Where portraiture was restrictive—the sitter could only be represented in one way—landscape painting was not. In fact, Hudson River School artists often trekked to exotic locations to study the area and make preliminary sketches before returning to their studios, where they created a composite of their experiences and visions.11 Thus, the Hudson River School artists were unique; they were able to combine their creativity and inventiveness with the infinite detail of the landscapes in which they lived and visited, often depicting features from a variety of sites in a single painting so as to create an entirely new—and enchantingly nonexistent—world. These works were the first to depict America in all its untamed glory.
In addition to breaking the chains of classical painting, the Hudson River School artists often invested much of their spiritual beliefs into their works. It was held that, in opposing the steely, destructive devils of industrialization in favor of the more peaceful and awe-inspiring wonders of the wilderness, these painters discovered an outlet for reconnecting with God; nature, in itself, was highly regarded as a manifestation of the divine. 12 Artists and poets alike were encouraged to embrace the natural as a way in which to return to one’s “roots”; likewise, it was a call for one to acknowledge his origins as a simple, honest, and humbled creature—a cleansing of the soul. This ideal easily lent itself to the creation of a more easygoing persona, one who was not restrained by the metal and concrete and grimy, dust-streaked windows of an urban factory, but instead, who flies free in self-discovery through the untainted and candid exploration of the spirit.
Among the Cedar Groves
Though many of the works of the Hudson River School artists are preserved and presented throughout the region, catching a glimpse of an interpretive vision in a crowded gallery certainly does not compare to witnessing the very sites and trails where these masters painted and gained their inspiration. Cedar Grove, the estate where Thomas Cole lived and worked, is nestled comfortably in the village of Catskill, at the foot of the Catskill Mountains, and bordered by the Hudson River. Originally owned by John A. Thomson, lovingly called “Uncle Sandy” by those living on the 110-acre farm, Cedar Grove encompassed much of the land east of the site. It consisted mostly of orchards, grain fields, fruit and vegetable gardens, and vineyards that Thomson tended.13
We may credit the luxuriant locale of Cedar Grove with supplying Thomas Cole the inspiration for the many works that would so drastically change art history. A land grant in 1684 and later subdivisions in 1773 carefully selected the borders that would frame the Thomson farm. Slowly but surely the Thomson family accumulated and developed nearby lots, until nearly a fifth of a century later the main house was constructed, facing the glorious panoramic view of the Catskill Mountain range to the west. In 1825, as his reputation as a unique landscape artist was beginning to bloom, the young Thomas Cole first visited the Thomson property. Soon after, he became a regular habitant, renting the cottage space that was to become one of his legendary studios. Interestingly, it is said that the south lawn, which enclosed a copse of cedars, inspired Cole to name the Thomson farm Cedar Grove before 1830. Within a few years, he married Maria Bartow, Thomson’s niece, thus expanding the already large family.14 Undoubtedly, his close relationship with Sandy, as well as the fruitful and animated environment in which he lived, helped to nurture and strengthen Cole’s abilities as a painter.
Today, the nineteenth century Federal-style house at Cedar Grove has been largely returned to the way it appeared when Thomas Cole breathed the Romantic air. For a time, its future was not assured. The dilapidated house’s valuables were sold at auction by one of Cole’s descendants in the late 1950s, and the majority of the estate’s fields and orchards were sold to the village. Finally, in 1999, the National Park Service officially declared the house a National Historic Site. Immediately afterward, restoration began, including repainting the structure the original soft yellow of Cole’s time. In 2001, at a celebration honoring the 200th anniversary of Cole’s birth, Cedar Grove was introduced to the public.15
Although Cedar Grove today only encompasses a few acres, visitors may venture along the fifteen-mile Hudson River School Art Trail linking sites where these revolutionary artists once painted.16 These beautiful surroundings are a living testament to the passion of the Hudson River School artists and their efforts to preserve and promote the glory of an ideal artistic, historic, and social liberty. With careful and diligent preservation, the breathtaking vistas of the Hudson River Valley will flourish forever, inspiring and influencing generations of artists to come.
He decided it was time to retire for the evening. He sat back on the stool and yawned generously, stretching the knots from his long, thin calves. The studio had been comfortably dark, too dark to work any further, and he itched to remove himself from the depression. He could feel his chest loosening, his lungs filling with an undesired vapor that settled and chilled and produced such a violent cough that, whenever he’d become agitated at his work, he’d be forced to quit. A walk along the trail might not be wise, yet it was necessary to clear his mind. Perhaps onlya brief stroll, he decided. He stood, took a moment to carefully wash his brushes and wrap them in their pouch, and placed the stoppers into the jars. Once this was finished, he stepped back to inspect the fresh canvas. He sighed; he would return to it at a later date
Propping his weight heavily against the door’s frame, soft, tired eyes rested upon his chair, his books, his easels, his long cedar palettes still stained, the oil soon to crack and flake. The frosty air snapped suddenly at his cheeks and sent icy shards down his throat. He was ready. He softly closed the door and stepped into the white snow.
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