The Thomas Cole National Historic Site has long attracted top scholars for its Sunday Salon lecture series, and 2013 is no exception: On a cold day in mid-January, the series kicked off with a talk by Kevin Avery, senior research scholar of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on how the new genre of American landscape painting evolved under Cole’s brush. Avery projected examples of “grotto” pictures, history paintings, Claude Lorrain’s classical, light-saturated landscapes and Cole’s own sketches of Italian ruins to show the diverse threads that contributed to his invention of the sublime landscape in America, which culminated in his Course of Empire series, a fascinating amalgam of the real and fantastical.
He talked about how the growing popularity of the romantic Hudson Valley landscape paralleled the industrialization of America; showed Church’s epic, oceanic 1857 painting of Niagara Falls, followed by other examples showing the variety of styles within the school (for example, Cropsey, the “painter of autumn,” who was quite distinct from Church’s histrionics); and then traced the emergence of a more pastoral, domesticated landscape following the Civil War, which culminated in the nuanced, proto-Modernist paintings of George Inness. Asking the overflow audience toward the end whether they’d had enough and being reassured that they certainly had not, Avery answered questions afterwards at the reception, which provided free glasses of wine.
For this former Art History major, it was an ideal way to spend a winter afternoon, and more gems are in store for lovers of art, history, and the region: a talk by Jean Dunbar on Cole’s decorative arts background – a seldom-visited subject – and her findings on how the house was decorated, on Sunday, February 10; and a lecture by Christopher Phillips, author of Epic in American Culture: Settlement to Reconstruction, on the development of the epic in Cole’s art, on March 10. The series will wind up with a tribute to Barbara Novak, professor of Art History at Barnard College and perhaps the most famous and influential scholar of American art, on April 14.
Betsy Jacks, executive director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, is particularly excited about the presentation by Dunbar, who has uncovered new information about how the house looked and was used in Cole’s time during her three-year tenure as a research consultant. (The house was occupied by his descendant until the 1970s, when it was transferred over to the Greene County Historical Society, and hence contains much of the original furniture.) Dunbar based her conclusions on poring over the19th-century inventories, looking at the valuations for each piece of furniture. She determined that the seat of a folding chair that belonged to Cole was covered in a scrap of the carpet laid down in the West Parlor, allowing the organization to reproduce the original.
Jacks said that her group plans to restore the interior to its original appearance in Cole’s time, when it had a kind of pop exuberance, with “patterned floor cloth, aquamarine halls, brightly striped stair carpet and faux marbling on the fireplaces and trim.” Hand-in-hand with the restoration, the Cole House will function as an interactive space, with possibly reproduction furniture placed in some of rooms to allow for habitation by the public, she said. In the meantime, check out the upcoming lectures – and note on your calendar that an exhibition of 11 Albert Bierstadt paintings, including one that takes up an entire wall, opens on May 2.
“Thomas Cole & the Decorative Arts: Career & Home” with Jean Dunbar, Sunday, February 10, 2 p.m.; “What Made Cole Epic?” with Christopher N. Phillips, Sunday, March 10, 2 p.m.; “Pioneer in American Art History”: a tribute to Barbara Novak, Sunday, April 14, 2 p.m., $9/$7 members, Thomas Cole National Historic Site, 218 Spring Street, Catskill; www.thomascole.org.