English émigré Thomas Cole, considered to be the founder of the Hudson River School of painting, was an itinerant portrait-painter in the first half of his career. That changed in 1825, when Cole sailed north on the Hudson River from New York City to the Catskills to paint the landscape, and his canvases glorifying the rugged American landscape under skies suffused with light and drama launched what is now considered to be the first American art movement.
These days, his former studio and home, Cedar Grove, are preserved for visitors at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill. But while a sense of permanence and Hudson Valley history permeates the site, it has only been since 2001 that the home, once in ruins, has been restored to its former glories through the actions of the National Park Service and a handful of dedicated local residents.
Guided tours of the studio and home are on hiatus for the winter, as they are at most of the historic Hudson Valley historic sites during the cold months; but at Cedar Grove, visitors can enjoy a lecture series called “Sunday Salons” on Sunday afternoons, followed by receptions in Thomas Cole’s 1815 home. Admission costs $9, $7 for members, and seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
The first lecture in the 2014 winter series will be “The Hudson River School: An Ice Age Origin?” on Sunday, January 12 at 2 p.m. The scientific revolutions and theories of the mid-19th century influenced American landscape painters like Cole, and the husband-and-wife team of authors Johanna and Robert Titus – a biologist and a geologist, respectively – will present an in-depth look into Cole’s and fellow Hudson Valley painter Frederic Church’s interactions and social encounters with the scientists of their time. Highlights include the Tituses’ discovery of the local mountain that Cole used as a model for the famous centerpiece of his series The Course of Empire. The couple will sign copies of their new book, The Hudson Valley in the Ice Age, after the talk.
“Thomas Cole at the Movies” will be the topic on Sunday, February 9 at 2 p.m. with Scott MacDonald, who will discuss the influence of the Hudson River School of artists and Thomas Cole in particular on a generation of modern independent filmmakers inspired by Cole and 19th-century landscape works. MacDonald, professor of Film History at Hamilton College and author of The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place, will present a program of films inspired by the Hudson River School, including works by Larry Gottheim, Robert Huot and Peter Hutton. Like many of Cole’s paintings, these films – all of them made in this region – function both as breakthrough landscape works and as reprieves from the distractions of modern life.
A discussion of shadow and light commences on Sunday, March 9 at 2 p.m. with “The Chiaroscuro of Thomas Cole” with noted writer and speaker Alexander Nemerov, the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University. Committed to teaching the history of art more broadly, Nemerov focuses on the presence of art, the recollection of the past and the importance of the humanities in our lives today. The description of this lecture promises: “Thomas Cole’s paintings abound in light and dark. Shadow and sunlight stream across his landscapes; his forest floors and canopies are swept by shades. What do Cole’s forests of chiaroscuro tell us about America in the 1830s and 1840s and the place of his art in it? Cole wore an elegant gentleman’s hat; this talk considers the swirl of thoughts in the head beneath the hat.”
The last lecture in the series will be “Together Again: Frederic Church as Thomas Cole’s Pupil” with Dr. Gerald L. Carr on Sunday, April 6 at 2 p.m. Carr, currently working on the Frederic E. Church Catalogue Raisonné, will preview the topic of the upcoming 2014 exhibition at Cedar Grove, as he considers the relationships of Cole and Church’s shared years at Catskill, 1844 to 1846. Carr is an art and architectural historian and renowned authority on Church, the author of seven books about the artist.
The Thomas Cole National Historic Site is located at 218 Spring Street in Catskill near the west entrance to the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. For more information, call (518) 943-7465 or visit www.thomascole.org/current-events.