Quintessentially rugged American landscapes under luminous skies, suffused with poetic light and imbued with drama: The Hudson River School of painting that flourished in the 19th century immortalized the region in which we live. English émigré Thomas Cole is credited with starting the movement in 1825, when he sailed north on the Hudson River from New York City to the Catskills, determined to become a landscape painter after an earlier career as an itinerant portrait-painter. Cole infused a sense of the sublime in his canvases, and many artists followed in his footsteps; but by the end of the 19th century, the Hudson River School of painting had largely faded into the history books, to be revived in reputation only by late-20th century generations of art-lovers who continue to respond to the timeless veneration of nature rendered simultaneously real and idealized.
But nobody paints like that anymore, right? Think again. To find a contemporary practitioner of the Hudson River School of painting, one need look no further than New Paltz-based Kevin Cook. His light-filled paintings of the Hudson Valley landscape reflect the same 19th-century values as those of that earlier school of painters, who would easily recognize him as one of their own.
And like that generation of painters, Cook seeks to portray a greater truth in the landscape that he paints, beyond just rendering a familiar local scene. “I am deeply inspired by 19th- century views on romanticism and communion with nature,” Cook says; “romance as in a sense of yearning or longing, where you feel like the best is yet to come. That’s something that I identify very strongly with.” He says that people often tell him that his work seems very peaceful, but he sees it differently: “To me it’s often filled with longing, as if true enlightenment is just over the next hilltop.”
Cook, 55, grew up in Amenia, a small town in Dutchess County. He developed an appreciation for the natural world early on, when his parents would pile the family into the car on summer evenings to go for a ride to “marvel at the setting sun.” A childhood art teacher inspired him to become an artist.
He attended SUNY-New Paltz, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Art Education. He taught elementary school for five years after leaving college, in a small private school in Poughkeepsie. After a fire at the school, Cook went to work at the Mohonk Mountain House, teaching art to guests and working on his own painting, finding that his artistic vision began to take shape in response to the terrain there. For him, painting was a way of communicating a feeling of spiritual connection to the landscape.
Cook’s process is much the same as that of his 19th-century predecessors, in that he does sketches in pencil or color at a location, but paints the actual composition back in his Huguenot Street studio. He might take written notes on location about color or mood, or occasionally take a reference photo. After time for reflection on how he wants to proceed with the work (“what artist Thomas Cole referred to as ‘waiting for the Veil of Time to fall,’” says Cook), he’ll then create the finished painting.