Art and Nature

Exploring the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River Artists

 

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In 1825, Thomas Cole hiked into the Catskill Mountains, overlooking the Hudson River and painted the first landscapes of the area.  The vivid autumn colors and sweeping vistas inspired him to render the views in a romantic style that was soon to be called the Hudson River School.

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Painter Thomas Cole and Poet William Cullen Bryant in 1849 painting Kindred Spirits by Asher Brown Durand

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A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning by Thomas Cole 1844

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From the top of Kaaterskill Falls

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Thomas Cole’s home, Cedar Grove

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Frederick Church’s home, Olana

Kaaterskill Falls, photo by www.GreatNorthernCatskills.com

Among artists, the term “school” is more akin to the phrase “school of thought” than a literal school with teachers and students, but Cole’s painting style, depicting the harmonious junction of nature and pastoral human activity was echoed by his followers, several of whom he directly mentored before they went on to achieve their own measure of fame.

At the time, the new country had just begun to shake off its birthing pains; the steamship had begun popular use, and the Erie Canal had just been opened.  In general, the young country was starting to see the wilderness not as a frightening challenge but simply a beautiful piece of our shared back yard.  The country was ready for realistic, idealized, and inspiring paintings that focused on the majestic wilderness that Americans were proud of, exactly the kind of paintings that Thomas Cole created.

Many of Cole’s paintings featured the rocks and trees of New York’s Catskills, part of the Appalachians that were barely traversable and sparsely inhabited in 1825 and barely more so now.  The deep mountain gorges, secluded lakes, and as-far-as-the-eye-can-see summit views inspired Cole and his followers, but also inspired art lovers, helping to shape the American ideals of conservation and reinforcing the importance of our vast, natural spaces.

For the modern traveler, it is very simple to experience the rugged landscapes that inspired Cole and his contemporaries virtually unchanged for nearly 200 years. A half hour scenic drive from the Hudson River followed by a half-mile hike lets you experience Kaaterskill Falls, where eons of weathering has created a waterfall and cascade that the Mohican Indians considered of mystical origin. Rushing water cascades over two drops, totaling 260 feet, splashing into a pair of gigantic basins before rushing along on its path that eventually takes it to the Hudson.

The hike to Kaaterskill Falls is part of the Hudson River School Art Trail, a series of hiking trails that end at scenic vistas immortalized by one of the Cole’s many disciples. Nearby, another half-mile trail leads visitors to Sunset Rock (and nearby “Artist’s Rock”), with an expansive western view of a woodland valley, a pair of lakes named simply North Lake and South Lake, and more of Catskills beyond.

In all, the Art Trail has 17 sites to visit, most with a not-too-strenuous hike through nature.  The Art Trail also includes Cole’s Hudson Valley home, which he called Cedar Grove.  Through the summer season, from 10 to 4 Wednesday through Sundays visitors can explore Cole’s history and inspirations at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site.  The historical house gives a look into how Cole and his family lived, some of his inspirations, and an up-close look at some of his work.  The site features a rotating exhibit – the 2014 summer season featured works from Cole and his most celebrated disciple, Frederic Church, titled: Master, Mentor, Master – Thomas Cole & Frederic Church. The exhibition tells the story of their relationship, from teacher to student, originator and successor.

Church was even more celebrated than Cole – while his technique and style echoed Cole, Church was also an expert self-promoter and showman. He toured the world, painting landscapes with the same romantic and detailed technique he had learned from Cole, but when he returned from a trip to South America with a painting measuring five feet by ten feet he called “The Heart of the Andes”, he was launched into the 1859 version of superstardom.  He toured the US and Europe with the painting and other works, garnering both praise and commissions.  Eventually he bought land atop a hill overlooking the Hudson to build his dream home and studio which he called Olana.

Olana is unusual for historic homes – it is furnished and decorated with the actual artifacts of the home’s builder rather than being simply a collection of historical artifacts of the period.  Both Olana and the décor are the idiosyncratic creation of Church, who adored the Persian architecture he saw on his many travels and sought to duplicate it as a storehouse for the treasures he collected from around the world. In fact, the name Olana is borrowed from a treasure storehouse in Assyria, 2000 years ago.  He added to his 200 acre farm with the purchase of the a woodlot with astounding views of the Hudson River and the Catskills, then built his dream house to take the fullest advantage of those views.  Then, he selected other remarkable views from his property and built carriage roads make them easily available.

Other significant artists of the Hudson River School include Asher Brown Durand, John Frederick Kensett, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Albert Bierstadt, and Eliza Pratt Greatorex, the first woman to be elected an associate of the National Academy of Design.  Like Cole they traveled extensively looking for amazing landscapes and created memorable works.

Of course modern traveling is easier than the train and carriage transportation of Cole’s day. Without arduous and expensive travel, the only way for most people to experience the Catskills and other majestic sights would be to view landscape paintings.  For modern travelers, the Catskills are just an hour north of New York City and three hour’s drive from Boston.

Once you are there, the hiking trails and the historical houses of Olana and Cedar Grove are just the beginning of the artistic experience.  More recent art is displayed at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill NY and at the Neuberger Museum in Purchase NY. Sculpture lovers will enjoy the Kendall Sculpture Garden at the Pepsico headquarters, also in Purchase and at the Storm King Art Center with a hundred outdoor sculptures and installations spread across 500 acres of woodlands, fields, and hills.

Bring along your sketch book and oil paints, so that after you are inspired by touring the art museums, you can take a hike into the Catskills and paint your own masterpiece.

Useful Links:

Hudson Valley Art Trail – www.hudsonvalleyarttrail.com

Thomas Cole’s Cedar Grove – www.thomascole.org

Frederic Church’s Olana – www.olana.org

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