History has been kind to Thomas Cole, securing his legacy as the artist who launched the Hudson River School of painting. His luminous canvases depicting the unspoiled 19th-century American wilderness inspired many artists who followed in his footsteps and are seen today as foreshadowing the modern environmental movement.
But Cole saw himself as something more than “a mere leaf painter,” as he noted in his diary. “I have loftier conceptions than any mere combinations of inanimate and uninformed Nature,” he wrote.
In The Course of Empire, a series of five canvases meant to be viewed as one, Cole painted what he described as “a higher style of landscape,” presenting a moralistic narrative about civilization and the inevitable fall from grace for those in power (a warning, perhaps, to a young country in the process of expansion). The Voyage of Life series combines landscape painting and allegory to point out spiritual challenges faced on the journey through life.
Cole also expressed his views through writing a number of philosophical essays and poetry. And his vision for the burgeoning young nation unfolding around him – seen with particular clarity, perhaps, as an immigrant who came to this country from England at age 17 – included a definite viewpoint on the architectural shape that it should take.
“Cole was thinking holistically,” says Betsy Jacks, executive director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill. “He wasn’t just thinking about painting. He was thinking about all of American culture. He wrote about it, he painted, he designed architecture. It all came together for him, in different ways; it was really about all the different ways he could get across his ideas.”
The little-known architectural aspirations and achievements of Cole are the focus of an exhibit of paintings, drawings and architectural renderings currently on exhibit at Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. The exhibit, curated by scholar Annette Blaugrund with Cedar Grove’s associate curator Kate Menconeri, remains on view through October 30.
The centerpiece of “Thomas Cole: The Artist as Architect,” is one of his better-known works, The Architect’s Dream. The large painting is composed like a stage setting, curtains parted to reveal a fantasy tableau of architectural styles from Gothic to Greek to the pyramids. An architect reclines in reverie on a column at the center of it all, dreamily surveying the history of architecture and (presumably) imagining where to go next.
The painting, which belongs to the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, hasn’t traveled for 20 years, notes Jacks, so its presence in Catskill represents a rare opportunity to see this work.
“Thomas Cole: The Artist as Architect” delves into the progression of Cole’s interest in architecture. An extended painting trip that he took to Europe from 1829 to 1832 – where painting architectural ruins in Italy apparently ignited his interest in the forms of buildings – led to Cole producing schematics and elevation drawings for architectural projects that include a monument to George Washington (never built) and his designs for the Ohio State Capitol building.
Cole entered a competition in 1838 to design the Ohio Statehouse, his first such effort. More than 50 architects submitted an entry; Cole’s came in third. In the end, the commission doing the judging decided to combine elements of the top three entries for the final design. Cole’s seminal contribution to the project is recognized by the National Register of Historic Places and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
A year later, Cole was commissioned to design a new church for St. Luke’s Episcopal parish in Catskill, whose church had burned down. The design by Cole, a member of the congregation, was executed during the same period of time that he was working on The Architect’s Dream, with interesting parallels visible between the Gothic church in the painting and the design for St. Luke’s. Completed in 1841, the church also contained a trompe l’oeil fresco painted by Cole. Unfortunately, the building no longer exists; it, too, was a casualty of fire (in 1855) and was ultimately torn down.
“Thomas Cole: The Artist as Architect” is the first show to be mounted in Cedar Grove’s new exhibition and lecture space: the “New Studio.” The building is a precise replica of the studio that Cole designed and built for himself at the site barely a year before his untimely death at age 47 in 1848.
The original New Studio built by Cole – so-called in relation to the “old studio” in which the artist worked at the site (used for seven years, although always meant to be “the temporary painting-room” until he could build a studio) – was torn down in 1973 after having been left to fall into disrepair by later generations of the Cole family. According to executive director Jacks, when the land left the hands of the Cole family, the new owners of the property demolished the building, intending to build a summer home there. Nothing was ever built on the land, and the spot remained an empty lot until eventually the Cole family bought the property back.
It was sold again in 1998 to the Greene County Historical Society. The purchase was spearheaded by the late Raymond Beecher, then the Greene County historian. The Cedar Grove site, which opened to the public in 2001 and was under the management of the National Park Service for a time, has been operating independently as the nonprofit Thomas Cole National Historic Site (TCNHS) since 2010.
Several years ago, archaeology was carried out by TCNHS that unearthed the original stone foundation of the studio that Cole designed. Using those stones for the new foundation and referencing photographs and other carefully researched resources, the replica of the New Studio was built exactly as the first was, and on its original footprint. A single acorn-shaped finial from Cole’s original exterior survived (it’s currently stored in the archives), serving as inspiration to recreate the charming design element for the replica.
The New Studio stands 24 by 42 feet, a rectangular structure designed somewhat in the style of an Italian villa. The building has windows on the north, south and west that extend nearly to the height of the high ceilings, flooding the room with natural light. Massive doorlike shutters over the windows can be closed top and bottom to control the light, just as the painter would have done in the original building. The wavy glass looks authentic, but is actually newly manufactured to look old, explains Jacks. The studio has an entrance portico facing the main house, with a low-hipped roof and broad eaves. The decorative bargeboards along the eaves have graceful scalloped arches with points suggestive of an acorn, with those acorn-shaped finials ornamenting the corners in Gothic Revival fashion.
The Thomas Cole National Historic Site will use the New Studio as a place for exhibitions and lectures. Its existence owes much to Beecher, who not only was the driving force behind ensuring that the property as a whole would be preserved, but also left behind a $1 million legacy for the site in his 2008 will. According to Jacks, $350,000 went to replicate Cole’s studio, with the remainder permanently restricted to pay for maintenance on the buildings and grounds.
The main house at Cedar Grove, where Cole lived with his family, is open for tours. In an ongoing process of restoration, the walls inside reveal hints of the decorative friezes that Cole painted near the ceiling, covered over time by layers of paint. Cole’s top hat, a guitar case that he made and artifacts of family life (musical instruments, books and such) are on view, along with the artist’s drafting table/desk, artifact case (with bits of rock that Cole collected from Pompeii) and a painted chart that he made for himself to test color relationships.
The “old studio,” located in an old barn/storehouse, is part of the tour, set up as it was during the seven years that Cole painted there. The family residence that Cole designed and intended to build at the site (the rooms in the main house were rented) never came to fruition due to financial difficulties. Elevation drawings in the current exhibit show that it would have been a villa design of three stories, with a tower that afforded a view of the surrounding Catskill landscape and mountains.
“Thomas Cole: The Artist as Architect,” Tuesday-Sunday through October 30, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Cedar Grove, Thomas Cole National Historic Site, 218 Spring Street, Catskill; (518) 943-7465, www.thomascole.org.