Mohonk Lake, nestled high among cliffs of the Shawangunk Ridge, was a subject for Hudson River School painters even before the Mohonk Mountain House was established on the shore of the glacial lake in 1869. Over the years, the resort attracted more artists, and many of their paintings of the Mohonk landscape ended up hanging on the walls of the huge, elegant mountain house – sometimes as gifts from the artists, other times purchased by the Smiley family, now in their fifth generation managing the property.
Sanford Levy, who runs Jenkinstown Antiques in Gardiner and is acknowledged as an expert on local 18th-century and early-19th-century art, has examined the Mohonk paintings and identified the artists where possible. He has written the text for Paintings at Mohonk: Visions of Our Surroundings, a catalogue of the 30 or so best works in Mohonk’s collection, along with a guide to where the paintings can be found in the mountain house. Guests can view Mohonk scenes of the past and compare them with the views of today.
One of the most prominent artists in the collection, Daniel Huntington, trekked to Mohonk Lake as early as 1837 to sketch and paint. Stokes Tavern opened there in 1859, providing lodging for visitors. A decade later, Albert Smiley, a Quaker, purchased and enlarged the ten-room tavern. Until 1879, he and his twin brother, Alfred, continued to develop the lodging and landscape. In an introduction to the catalogue, Levy quotes Albert, who wrote, “I treated this property, the result of 76 purchases, as a landscape artist does his canvas, only my canvas covers seven square miles.”
The Mohonk walls now display two Huntington landscapes: one of the lake, with tiny people in rowboats dwarfed by the magnificent scenery, and a romantic picture of a pitch pine, the region’s signature tree species, perched among windswept cliffs. Huntington’s finely wrought portraits of Albert Smiley and his wife, Eliza, hang in the main dining room.
Some of the works, such as Henry van Ingen’s Lake Mohonk, show the landscape free of human structures – either because they were painted before the hotel was built or because the artist felt, as many Hudson River School painters did, that nature should be depicted in its purity.
As time went on, artists began to include evidence of human encroachment on the landscape. An unsigned picture of a road leading to an unnamed lake is clearly influenced by Thomas Cole, but Levy says that the inclusion of a horse and rider, a small graveyard and grazing cattle are meant to show how humans have already begun to degrade the landscape.
Later artists offered admiring documentation of the changes at Mohonk. Nelson Augustus Moore’s Lake, Summerhouse and Sky Top shows structures that were the precursors of similar ones present today. Moore includes the third wooden Sky Top observation tower, which burned in 1909 and was rebuilt in stone in 1923.
The Smileys built a dock and boathouse on the lake, providing guests with rowboats to cruise the water. A painting by Carl Werntz gives us insight into the customs of the early 1900s by featuring men on the dock in suits, a woman strolling with a parasol, a man rowing a female companion across the water and a hearty young lady setting out alone in a boat.
English-born artist Joseph Tubby settled in the Rondout section of Kingston, where he befriended Jervis McEntee, later one of the more successful Hudson River School painters. Tubby’s Sunset at Lake Mohonk glows with an uncanny realism. The painting was formerly owned by a collector in Maryland, who read an article that Levy had written about Tubby. “He contacted me and said he had one of Tubby’s paintings,” said Levy, “and that it said ‘Lake Mo-something’ on the back.” The Smileys were delighted to purchase the painting.
Now that the paintings have been catalogued, the next step is to improve the lighting. Funding has already been budgeted to make the works more visible as they hang in the corridors and parlors.