Living Off the Landscape

Thomas Cole and Frederick Church in the Hudson River Valley

HUMANITIES, July/August 2009, Volume 30, Number 4

Across the broad river valley, two houses stand witness. Though deserted long ago by the families that inhabited them, they have been meticulously restored and opened to the public, because together these two buildings frame the history of the United States’ first native-born art movement, the Hudson River School.

The contrast couldn’t be stronger. “Cedar Grove,” hidden among the trees on the Hudson River’s west bank, is a substantial but unpretentious brick farmhouse, the home of Thomas Cole, 1801–1848, a self-taught immigrant painter who in the 1820s awakened Americans to the grandeur of their own landscape. “Olana,” an ornate pseudo-Persian villa, perches atop a high hill on the east bank, visible for miles. This was the home that Cole’s flamboyant student Frederic Edwin Church, 1826–1900, designed for himself at the height of his fame, when his paintings commanded the greatest prices of any living painter in the United States. The two men’s personal styles were as different as the houses suggest. The shared location, however, reveals the passion that united Cole and Church: their unslakable appetite for the scenery of the upper Hudson River, for the graceful valley and the rugged Catskill Mountains that dominate its horizon. To understand that passion, and how it changed a nation’s perception of itself, you cannot do better than spend a day at these two historic sites.

Begin as the Hudson River School did, at Cedar Grove in the town of Catskill. Cole had first arrived in the region by steamboat in 1825; the paintings inspired by this brief tour made his reputation and enabled him to return in the summer of 1827 and rent from the owner of Cedar Grove farm a room in which to board and an outbuilding in which to paint. Cole fell in love with the location: Set on a west-facing slope, Cedar Grove offers sweeping views of the Catskill Mountains which, he wrote in 1835, “heave from the valley of the Hudson like the subsiding billows of the ocean after a storm.” Cole found another kind of love here, too—in 1836 he married Maria Bartow, the niece of Cedar Grove’s owner. Aside from periods of travel and study in Europe (1829–1832 and 1841–1842), the artist made Cedar Grove his base for the rest of his life.

Purchased by the Greene County Historical Society in 1998, the restored Cedar Grove offers through its furnishings, views, and exhibits an intimate understanding of Cole’s life and art. There is, for example, the modesty of the accommodations. Cedar Grove was, by the standards of the time and place, a “gentleman's farm,” but Cole and his wife shared the house with her uncle and her sisters. The Coles and their five children had just three rooms on the second floor. But Cole was used to making do. Born in Lancashire, England, he learned the rudiments of composition and design in a textile factory, carving wood blocks with which to print decorative patterns on calico. After emigrating with his parents and siblings to the United States in 1818, he taught himself to paint, begging lessons from an itinerant portrait painter, and making his own brushes to copy illustrations out of books.

Cole’s greatest artistic asset proved to be his untutored eye. His native-born neighbors viewed the American wilderness only as resources to be harvested: timber to be felled, streams to be dammed, and fields to be cleared. Cole, however, understood otherwise. Raised as he had been among mills in the center of Britain’s primary industrial region, he saw in the fresh hills and forests the untouched work of God’s hand.

As a museum, Cedar Grove records how Cole turned this revelation into a new style of art. Landscape painting in Europe was an art of conventions, with canvases inhabited by nymphs, satyrs, artistically posed dead trees, and classical ruins. Cole, by contrast, studied at the source. At Cedar Grove one can see a case of specimens he collected, pressed and mounted plants, and a library (considerable for the time) that included the latest scientific works on geology, botany, and the natural sciences.

An essential piece of equipment for a Hudson River School painter was a strong pair of legs—Cole commonly recorded in his journal hiking through the mountains, sketching equipment under his arm, all day and half the night, too, before stopping at some remote settler’s homestead. On one notable occasion, he dallied on a mountaintop to admire the sunset and became lost in the darkness during his descent. After crawling through a tangle of timber felled by a tornado, he slipped down a precipitous bank into a stream which swept him into and through a cavern. He escaped from the current just a few feet short of a waterfall, and it wasn't until dawn that a dog’s barking led him to a log cabin with, as Cole noted cheerfully, “a warm fire, and venison steak.”

The foundation of his paintings were the sketches Cole made from nature, and a permanent exhibit at Cedar Grove shows how these progressed from pencil sketches to sketches in oil paints, then to more formal studies in which Cole explored composition and idyllic themes, preparing for the final step, the formal oil painting on stretched canvas which he would sell to clients and patrons. Visitors to Cedar Grove can visit Cole’s newly restored studio, which looks as if Cole has just left, perhaps to walk across the lawn for dinner with his family.

This sense of being there continues with a special exhibition Cedar Grove has sponsored this year in honor of the four-hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river that bears his name. It juxtaposes a select group of paintings representing not only the work of Cole but also of artists such as Sanford Gifford and Jasper Cropsey, the men who seized on Cole’s inspiration and carried it on in what became known as the Hudson River School after Cole’s death at age forty-seven. One innovative aspect of the exhibition is a series of guided hikes that take participants to the actual vistas that inspired these and other Hudson River School paintings. This builds upon the Hudson River School Art Trail website (www.thomascole.org/trail/index.html) that Cedar Grove has created as a permanent and more widely accessible introduction to this experience. With just a few clicks, this site provides a downloadable gallery of paintings with photographs of the corresponding vistas as they look today, and trail maps to get the hiker to the essential vantage point.

Such a hike is the perfect preparation for a subsequent visit to Olana, because it was on a sketching expedition with his teacher Cole that the eighteen-year-old Frederic Church first visited the hilltop where he would build his house.

In many respects, the student and his teacher (Church studied with Cole for two years, from June of 1844 to May of 1846) could not have been more different. Church sprang from one of the first families of Hartford, Connecticut, and was used to the best; when he decided to pursue his interest in drawing and painting rather than following his father into the insurance business, Church was, as a matter of course, sent to live and work with the most famous American artist of the day. The kind of honors and commissions that had cost Cole so many years of poverty and struggle came easily to Church—he was elected to the National Academy of Design at age twenty-two and made a full member the following year, a record never since equaled.

Yet Church came to revere Cole, and under his influence began a lifelong love affair with the Catskill/upper Hudson River region. Church, for example, described Olana to friends as “the center of the world,” which meant a great deal, since his was a far larger world than Cole’s. Church traveled compulsively. His most famous painting, The Heart of the Andes, was a distillation of two expeditions to the back country of South America; another masterpiece, The Icebergs (which sold in 1979 for $2.5 million, the highest price ever paid to that point for an American painting) was a memoir of a cruise off the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland. He sketched in Jamaica, wintered in Mexico, and although he never actually visited Iran, a tour of the Middle East, together with some art books he acquired in France, persuaded him to design the family home in what he believed to be the Persian style. In sum, Olana (Church borrowed the name of an ancient Persian treasure house) bespeaks a far more cosmopolitan life than that suggested by the simple, Federal-style Cedar Grove. In fundamental ways, however, the faux-Persian palace is an extension of what Church learned sketching by Cole’s side.

Indeed, despite its exotic appearance, Olana served Church as a retreat, the place where he retired in the late 1870s as fashions in the art world changed and the popularity of his paintings and the Hudson River School in general waned. The structural work was completed by 1872, but Church continued to work on the decoration and add and subtract features almost until his death in 1900.

Olana is, arguably, the Hudson River School’s most elaborate and complete expression. It is also one that has been preserved miraculously intact. For unlike Cedar Grove, whose furnishings and most of whose acreage Cole’s descendants sold before parting with the house, Olana and its two-hundred-and-fifty-acre landscape passed down in the family relatively unchanged (though increasingly neglected) until a spirited band of preservationists managed to forestall an auction and combine private with public funds to turn the house and land into a state historic site in 1966.

There are many reasons to visit Olana. The house and outbuildings, authentically refurbished, are a monument to Victorian architectural crafts, a superb display of decorative brick and tile work, of glittering stenciling and decorative glass. Church’s collection of his own work and those of fellow Hudson River School painters is impressive, particularly a treasure trove of sketches in oils that were found in the house’s attic. “Glories of the Hudson: Frederic Church’s Views from Olana,” on display in the new Evelyn and Maurice Sharp Gallery this summer and fall, presents works by Church that have never before been seen by the public. Displayed side by side with the precise vistas that inspired them, the sketches and paintings take on a special power. Equally remarkable is the landscape, which Church sculpted and painted to complement the natural views. Taken all together, though, the sum is far greater than the parts, a fascinating insight into the mind of a powerful artist and into an aesthetic that still reverberates through the region.

A tour of the house reveals the extent to which it was designed around the views—Church composed the picture you see from each window as carefully as he composed any of his paintings. Below the house he created a foreground, excavating a swampy area to create a large pond, the shape of whose perimeter echoes a bend in the Hudson beyond. He planted thousands of trees, singly and in clusters, on the slopes that fall away from the house on the north and south to emphasize the natural land forms and create visual rhythms. He also used trees to frame views along the miles of carriage roads he cut into the fields and woods around the house, in this way choreographing the experience visitors would take away from a visit.

The landscape has changed, of course, over the last 130 years. The saplings that Church set out have grown up, spread their limbs, and in many cases died. Seedlings and brush crept in during the years of neglect preceding the property’s acquisition by the state of New York, obscuring some of Church’s plan. This summer the staff begins the restoration of the carriage roads and an ongoing program of careful cutting is restoring views that had closed.

That the views are still able to be rescued is largely due to Cole, Church, and their Hudson River School colleagues. Already by the mid 1830s, Cole was decrying the “copper-hearted barbarians” who were pushing a railroad up through his valley to exploit its natural resources—through mining, quarrying, and logging—and furnish transportation for infant industries. Having seen the grimy pall that development had thrown over his native Lancashire, Cole worried that the same would happen to his adopted Catskill region. His expression of this sentiment, says Betsy Jacks, director of Cedar Grove, makes Cole one of America’s environmental pioneers. Unquestionably, the appreciation of natural beauty that he and the rest of the Hudson River School fostered, and their emphasis on a personal experience of the wild helped to lay the foundation for the establishment of the Catskill Park in 1904, and for the protection of thousands of acres of farmland along the river more recently by private groups such as Scenic Hudson. The fact that today the wide river and the rugged green mountains still have the power to inspire awe owes a great deal to the work that went on in these two houses, Cedar Grove and Olana, and the way their owners taught Americans to see.