The painter Thomas Cole was an analog kind of guy. He created things that were used as models for other things. His most famous stuff, of course, were the paintings he created. He turned out to have real talent at that.
But he also did other things. The man who would become the founding painter of the Hudson River School learned as a teenager in England to draw designs on fabrics and in Pittsburgh to decorate textiles that his father made. This future landscape painter was attracted by landscape design and interior decorating. He liked to draw images to adorn furniture. He would add representational pictorial ornamentation to objects.
Two years ago a visiting conservator was excited to discover that Cole had made drawings on the interior walls in his house in Catskill. Senator Charles Schumer announced federal money was being made available to restore these friezes. “When people from abroad come to my office, they know the Hudson River School,” the senior senator told a New York Times reporter last July. “It’s like something out of a movie.”
Investing in historic preservation had the additional benefit of boosting local economies, Schumer noted, disclosing that uncovering Cole’s décor would cost the government $600,000. “People will enjoy it for generations,” he said, “and we’ve seen that preserving our treasures is one of the best ways to create jobs.”
The 2016 exhibition at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site on Spring Street, titled “Thomas Cole: The Artist as Architect,” will open May 1. The exhibition and accompanying book will focus on Cole’s interests through architectural elements in his paintings and drawings.
All his life, Cole was particularly drawn to architecture, and some of his best-known paintings, like his garish “Course of Empire” series (1833-36), contained amazingly detailed and fanciful architecture. His zany 1840 The Architect’s Dream, which will be the highlight of this year’s exhibition at the Cole House, portrays a tiny architect on a pedestal surveying fanciful images reminiscent of the Kremlin, the Parthenon and the pyramids. Far out.
A few hours before the Super Bowl this past Sunday, Ohio state capitol architect Robert Loversidge gave a lecture about Cole’s interest in architecture to an audience of about 50 people. Appropriately, this second of four “Sunday Salons” devoted to the theme was presented in the carefully reconstructed 1846 New Studio a couple of hundred yards away from the main house. Cole had done sketches of his studio and had the high-ceilinged, tall-windowed space built to his specifications.
When it comes to disseminating information in today’s economy, however, even about the most endlessly creative of analog folks, one can’t easily succeed without digital. And all through the Hudson Valley and all through the Catskills, people are struggling to do just that. Younger folks take the new forms of expression for granted; the struggle for them involves content. Older folks, who may more have their content down, seek to make their digital translation convey as much of the spirit of the original as possible.
Some have worried, as has MIT clinical psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle in her 2011 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, about the failure of young people involved in their digital devices to develop fully independent selves. I’m interested in another angle. I would advance the hypothesis that people living rich analog lives — like Thomas Cole did — are more advantaged in the digital age than those confined to solely digital lives, the so-called “device people.” Those that speak both the analog and digital ‘languages’ have more to say, in my view, and they’re usually better at saying it.
Architecture in the digital age requires both engineering and aesthetic skills.
Armed with an Apple PC, an Ipad and a recording device, Loversidge took the podium on a recent Sunday to tell the story of how the first painter of the Hudson River School almost became the architect of Ohio’s state house. In 1838, after Cole’s “Course of Empire” series but prior to “An Architect’s Dream,” the state legislature selected a three-person commission to pick an architect for a news state capitol building. Sixty people submitted architectural proposals. First place was awarded to Cincinnati practitioner Henry Walter, second to New Yorker Martin E. Thompson, and third prize to landscape painter Cole.
Thomas Cole knew one of the Ohio commissioners, who favored him. When the three members couldn’t agree, they agreed to hire New York consultant Alexander Jackson Davis (the architect of the exquisite Montgomery Place next to Bard College), who combined the three prizewinning designs. The commissioners eventually settled on Henry Walter as the architect of record.
Twenty-two years and several architects later, the Ohio statehouse was considered complete. Its main visual feature was a curious round two-story drum atop its roof; Cole had drawn a dome.
As the example of Thomas Jefferson demonstrates, gentlemen architects were far from uncommon in Cole’s day. And as the example of the life of Kingston’s John Vanderlyn, belonging to the correct political faction or having politically connected friends was regarded as a natural form of professional advancement even more than it is today. An artist obsessed with architecture was by no means disqualified. The first American program in architectural engineering was only started in 1865, 17 years after Cole’s death.
Loversidge’s presentation showed how much dedication and money had been lavished on the meticulous restoration of the Ohio capitol building in recent decades. New York is by no means the only state whose legislature has been willing to lavish extravagant funding on restoration of the quarters of its public officeholders.
The Cole House continues to invest in its physical plant, bringing it up to the standards of other properties managed by the National Park Service
The next Sunday Salon at the New Studio at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 13 is entitled “Thomas Cole’s Country Houses.” It will examine the little-studied paintings of the grand estates of three different patrons and Cole’s writings about country life in order to trace the formation of a domestic ideal that guided this painter-architect when it came time to design a country house (never built) of his own. The lecture will be given by William Coleman, a post-doctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. Tickets are $9, $8 for members.
On April 10, art historian Dr. Wanda M. Corn of Stanford University will discuss American artists’ homes and studios that, like the Cole property, have been preserved and opened to the public. She will ask what these places can teach us about the creative process and the history of art.
And then the Cole House site’s exhibition on the artist as architect will open for the season on May 1.
This weekly column reports regularly on economic trends in the mid-Hudson region. To read past columns, go to Ulster Publishing’s hudsonvalleybusinessreview.com.