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Follow the footsteps of the first American artists


It might be hard to imagine, but in the early 19th century the concept of being an American and creating American art was not well recognized. Many American artists were searching for a style of art they could call their own. Then along came Thomas Cole (1801–1848).

Main House exterior at Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York

Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Cole National Historic Site Main House, Thomas Cole National Historic Site, Catskill, N.Y.

Cole created landscape paintings unlike any others. He captured the beauty of America — its wild forests, majestic mountains, roaring rivers and pristine landscapes. This was the untamed beauty he and his followers — known as the Hudson River School of Art — saw and put to canvas.

“When Cole painted his influential landscape images, Americans saw their country in a new way, as a place of wild beauty to be treasured,” said Elizabeth Jacks, director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. “The Hudson River School artists helped define what is American about America — its wild, vast and ‘unspoiled’ landscapes, giving rise to our desire to preserve them.”

Unlike the general idea of the time that the grandeur of America needed to be developed and tamed, the Hudson River School laid the foundation for an American sense of patriotism and preservation that still survives today, Jacks said. “The Hudson River School reinforced a cultural current that still runs through American culture, conversation and policy today, for example in the popular song America the Beautiful.’’

Thomas Cole home at Cedar Grove

Visitors today are fortunate to be able to see the Cedar Grove home where Cole lived and painted as well as the home of his star pupil, Frederick Edwin Church (1826–1900). Until his death in 1848, Cole lived at his home in the village of Catskill, New York.

Main house porch at Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York

Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Cole National Historic Site Porch, Main House, Thomas Cole National Historic Site, Catskill, N.Y.

Church lived and worked at his elegant 1870s mansion, Olana, in nearby Greensport, New York. Greensport is located across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, 3 ½ miles away.

Both homes offer group tours and special classes where group tour participants can create art of their own. Some of the arts and crafts classes include beeswax candle making, paper designs, evergreen wreaths, boxwood trees, oilcloth placemats and scenic painting.

Group tours can be customized to special interests, from art and architecture to landscape design and environmental conservation. A catered lunch also can be arranged at Olana’s Wagon House Educational Center or a picnic lunch on the lawn can be enjoyed at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site.

Hudson River Art Trail

Established in 2005, a tour of the Hudson River Art Trail is like stepping into a 19th-century landscape painting. The trail highlights more than 20 sites that showcase the vistas captured by Hudson River School of Art painters — Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Asher B. Durand, Jasper Cropsey, Sanford Gifford and other pioneering American artists. The program includes a map, brochure, guidebook, mobile optimized website, outdoor interpretive panels, guided hikes and other public programs. Special markers are located at key sites so visitors know which artist stopped to immortalize that site.

New Studio building exterior at Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York

Photo: Peter Aaron Otto New Studio, Thomas Cole National Historic Site, Catskill, N.Y.

“People come from all over the world to visit this place where American art was born,” Jacks said. “Visitors to the Catskills are inescapably immersed into the landscapes that appear in Cole’s paintings. One of the most valuable features of the Thomas Cole Site is its proximity to the scenic areas that Cole and his fellow landscape painters captured in their paintings.”

Many of these views remain remarkably unchanged due to the “forever wild” clause in the 1885 legislation that established the Catskill Forest Preserve, which now comprises about 300,000 acres of public land.

The first stop on the art trail is the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, where visitors can tour the Main House, a 3-story Federal-style structure of painted brick and the Old Studio, a barn-like building where Cole created many of his most iconic and celebrated paintings. Restored in 2004, the building is now furnished with Cole’s original easels and other art-making tools, appearing as though the artist has just stepped out.

Cole painted in the Old Studio for seven years until December 1846 when he proudly moved into what he called the New Studio. Sadly, the new building designed by Cole fell into disrepair and was torn down in 1973. After many years of research and fundraising, the reconstructed New Studio was open to the public on May 1, 2016.

Thomas Cole studio interior at Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York

Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Cole National Historic Site Thomas Cole studio, Thomas Cole National Historic Site, Catskill, N.Y.

“In May 2017, we will unveil the Parlors Project in the historic Main House, which has been over a decade in the making,” Jacks said. “The Parlors Project integrates a meticulous historic restoration with interactive audiovisual technology to bring to life the two main parlors of Thomas Cole’s home. The project will reveal the only known interiors designed by Thomas Cole. The interiors include recently discovered original decorative paintings by Cole himself and reveal another facet of Cole’s artistic vision that was previously lost to history.”

Frederic Church home at Olana

Next up is Church’s beloved Olana, one of the most outrageous homes ever constructed in America. Church chose to use colorful Persian architecture for his psychedelic dream home, which he admitted was “a style of architecture I have never seen.”

View of Hudson River from Bell Tower at Olana in Greenport, New York

Photo: Andy Wainwright View of Hudson River from Bell Tower, Olana, Greenport, N.Y.

“There’s really something for every interest at Olana, from America’s most intact artist home and studio to the 250-acre landscape park designed by Frederic Church with views to four states — New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont,” said Susan Oberwager, president of The Olana Partnership.

Completed in 1872 and named for an ancient Persian fortress, the result is an elaborate mass of arches and towers, striking inlaid designs and patterns and a courtyard open to the sky. Inside the exotic mansion are works by Church along with original furnishings, folk art, paintings he collected and souvenirs from his world travels.

“Visitors enjoy the same beautiful natural landscapes of river, farmland and mountains that inspired the Hudson River School artists,” Oberwager said. “The Hudson River School Art Trail connects the Thomas Cole National Historic Site and Olana with some of the most stunning landscape features painted by the artists.” 

Taking a new look at an American legend

“Grandma Moses: American Modern” is an exhibition that reexamines the beloved American artist Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses and reestablishes her within the canon of mid-century American Modernism.

Grand Moses headshot

Photo: Public Domain Grandma Moses

The exhibition can be seen at the Bennington Museum in Bennington, Vermont, from July 1 through Nov. 5.

It was organized with the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, where it was on view last year.

Grandma Moses was a self-taught American artist (1860–1961), who began painting in her 70s.

This exhibition pairs her paintings and ephemera with fellow “folk artists” as well as modernist contemporaries associated with “high art.” The display will include key paintings and ephemera by iconic artists such as Joseph Cornell, Helen Frankenthaler, Edward Hicks, Morris Hirshfield, Joseph Pickett and Andy Warhol.

“When ‘Grandma Moses: American Modern’ comes to Bennington Museum in July 2017, we will have the distinct honor of welcoming visitors to enjoy the most extensive exhibition of Grandma Moses paintings assembled in the last 50 years, with over 65 paintings on view,” said Susan Strano, marketing director at Bennington Museum.

This year Bennington Museum also will show paintings by Grandma Moses that have never been on view there before. Included in its permanent gallery will be a selection from the series The Night Before Christmas among others. These will be on view through November 2017.

The museum is offering step-on tours of Grandma Moses Country plus its regular step-on tour of Old Bennington along with a docent-led tour of the museum.

For the Grandma Moses Country tour, the guide will provide information about the artist, how she got her start and how she came to be so popular. Allow three to four hours for this tour, which includes museum admission, a docent at the museum and on the coach and a discount for Grandma Moses merchandise offered in the Bennington Museum Store.

Article by Jackie Sheckler Finch


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