Catskill culture

Button Wood Tree, May 16, 1823, 13½” x 26 7/8”, a Thomas Cole drawing done when the artist was 22 years old, contained in a display case in the New Studio.

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, 1847

The elegant one-room show entitled “Picturesque and Sublime: Thomas Cole’s Trans-Atlantic Inheritance,” on display in the New Studio at the Thomas Cole historic site in Catskill from now through November 4, breaks new ground. The Hudson Valley has enjoyed a rich heritage of regional art viewed at local college museums. There have been impressive showings in private galleries, private collections on exhibit in commercial and non-commercial spaces, and countless informal occasions in artists’ studios. But there’s never been anything quite like this.

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The reconstruction of Cole’s New Studio is a modest-sized room with a very high ceiling. It’s not a large space. The room, its large north window hooded to protect the delicate contents of the show from direct light, contains 29 paintings, drawings, etchings, and other exhibits on its walls. Four display cases hold additional objects. The opposite gallery wall as one enters through an antechamber contains three Thomas Cole oil landscapes, left to right (from the viewer’s vantage): The Clove (1827) painted when he was in his twenties, Catskill Mountain House: The Four Elements (1843-44) from his forties, and Ruined Tower (1832-6), painted after the artist returned from an extended European trip in his early thirties.

Breakthroughs in art don’t always need to take up a lot of gallery space. To the right of the wall with the three horizontal Cole landscapes in the New Studio is a modest John Constable oil-on-paper cloud study (Landscape at Hempstead, Trees and Storm Clouds) from 1821 that’s alive with motion and activity, capturing a marvelously moody moment. It’s a gem. Though Thomas Cole was a wonderful draftsman whose sketches capture a great eye for line, only his earliest paintings — before he learned to be a better European painter, a captious critic might say — display the loose brush strokes and let-it-all-hang-out gesturalism of which Constable or J.M.W. Turner, each in his own very different way, was capable.

The Catskill show includes images of European landscapes that influenced Cole, the works of other early regional artists, engravings and drawings, how-to books and art essays, etc. “Trans-Atlantic Inheritance” shows how this young economic immigrant learned his profession and honed his craft.

As his career flourished, Cole became obsessed with apocalyptic messaging. While his American patrons were happy with landscapes that looked distinctively American, combining primeval features and complementary signs of domestication, that’s not what Cole wanted to do. To him, each painting was an allegory, and each modest foreground plant, gnarled mid-distance tree, or foreboding distant sky a symbol.

The entrance to the New Studio containing “Thomas Cole’s Trans-Atlantic Inheritance.”

Painting landscapes of an American Eden wasn’t the evolving Britisher’s greatest ambition. This quintessentially self-taught Catskill-based artist was determined, as he described it as early as 1829, to paint “a series of pictures illustrating the mutation of terrestrial things.” After an extended tour by the artist of Britain and Italy, he embarked on a five-painting cycle called The Course of Empire, starting, in Cole’s words, with “utter wilderness,” moving on in the second painting to the same setting as “partially cultivated country,” then in the third to the growth of a “gorgeous city,” and fourthly to the burning of said city, “with all the concomitant scenes of horror.” The final painting portrays “a scene of ruins, rent mountains, encroachment of the sea, dilapidated temples, &c.”

In 1842 Cole completed an even gloomier cycle of man’s folly, The Voyage of Life. That potboiling cycle of four paintings earns only a single mention in the sumptuous 289-page catalog of “Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s companion show which closes this Sunday.

The space-limited show at the Met is organized around The Course of Empire and another work of that period for which Cole is justly famous, The Oxbow, a panoramic elevated view of the Connecticut River Valley at Northampton, Massachusetts. Providently, modern infrared reflectography revealed an underdrawing of the central image of The Course of Empire on the canvas Cole used for The Oxbow, forming an inextricable bond between the two works that in the curators’ view summed up the painter’s ambitions in the mid-1830s.

One might think, therefore, that leftovers from the Met show were left over for use in the Catskill show. One would be wrong. Though its theme is different and its wall space more limited, “Trans-Atlantic Inheritance” in Catskill turns out on viewing to be every bit as strong a show as “Atlantic Crossing” at the Met. For a kindred spirit, a leisurely drive a few exits up the Thruway yields as much culture as a voyage to Gotham.

I call that a miracle. There could be no more appropriate a miracle than a show of this quality in the studio of Thomas Cole’s adopted home in Catskill. It’s ironic that Catskill, a tight-knit community not previously known for its self-respect when it comes to aesthetic matters, should entertain so distinguished a cultural asset.

Were it not that the same curatorial team as produced the Met show produced the Cole House show, this outcome would been extremely unlikely. A curator of both shows is Tim Barringer, a professor of art history at Yale and pre-eminent scholar of British art. The scholarship in the catalogues of both shows is prodigious. Professor Barringer will give a lecture on the Catskill show at the synagogue next to the Cole House at 218 Spring Street, Sunday, May 13 at 2 p.m.

Cole’s opinions are being seen in a new light, as The New York Times art critic Holland Cotter put it this March, “in an era in which populism is being strategically used as a divisive political force.” Cole had fulminated against the “dollar-godded utilitarianists” of the Jacksonian era with a moralizing urgency. Today’s political climate echoes his concerns.

Washington Post art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott offered a shrewd observation in his review of the Met show. In Cole’s paintings of the Catskills, Kennicott observed, “one senses that he was most pained by the loss of his personal landscape, his preferred places to commune with nature.”

Art historians seem preoccupied with Cole’s hatred for railroad locomotives and for unsightly mills. More damage came from the bark peeling that systematically denuded Catskills hillsides of hemlock and polluted the streams during Cole’s lifetime. Having no further use for the stripped land, the tannery owners didn’t pay their property taxes on it. In the 1880s, New York State finally formed the Catskills Forest Preserve out of the foreclosed properties. The state and the City of New York today own or control about 450,000 acres in the forest preserve, about half the total. There are strict land-use controls, and the forest has been returning. Local historian Paul Misko has been giving lectures entitled “The Catskills Tanneries: An Environmental Disaster with a Happy Ending.”

A mile or two down the hill from the Cole House in Catskill is the Mawignack neighborhood off Snake Road, near the confluence of the Catskill and Kaaterskill creeks. The location in the 17th century of an Algonquin village, Mawignack (“the place where two rivers meet”) was one of Thomas Cole’s preferred places to commune with nature. Scenic Hudson bought the 144-acre property in 2016, and the Mawignack Preserve will open to the public this Saturday, May 12. At 10 a.m. visitors will be invited to take a hike on a one-mile loop prepared for public use by the Greene County Land Trust.

Along the trail is a portion of the railbed of the Catskill Mountain Railway, which carried passengers from the Hudson River to a location where they could take a stagecoach (and after 1904 a funicular) up to mountaintop hostelries like the Catskill Mountain House.

Co-curators for the Cole House exhibition were Gillian Forrester of the University of Manchester, Yale associate professor of art history Jennifer Raab, and Yale doctoral candidates Sophie Lynford and Nicholas Robbins.

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