Historic Places · Hudson River School

Hudson River School Day

Inside Thomas Cole’s studio. All photos in this post are by the author.

The photos in this post are from my visit to the Catskills last weekend, where I spent a day to see the homes of Hudson River School painters Thomas Cole and Frederick Edwin Church. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I am a great lover of the Hudson River School, and I’ve wanted to visit these two houses for some time but haven’t had the chance until now. Cole’s and Church’s houses are about a five-minute drive away from each other on opposite sides of the Hudson River.

Cedar Grove, the Catskill, NY home of Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole.

Thomas Cole’s house, entitled “Cedar Grove”, was pretty much what I expected for – simple but elegant with a spacious wraparound porch allowing lovely views of the Catskills beyond. It was exciting to look out and compare the view with Cole’s several paintings of it that were handily reproduced nearby. Cole’s house and belongings were modest without seeming impoverished, though I do know they struggled financially at times. Based on the family objects in display inside and the tour guide’s narrative, I got the sense that Cole and his family valued artistry, intellect, and religion over being wealthy and fashionable. The grounds are beautiful, but smaller and less remote than I expected. They were originally much more expansive, though most were owned by Cole’s father-in-law rather than the artist himself.

Gothic Ruins at Sunset by Thomas Cole, c. 1846. Appearing at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site courtesy of Alexander Gallery.

My favorite part of the tour was the “old studio”, the converted barn that Cole worked in for the majority of his time on the property. It was rustic and cozy, and I enjoyed experiencing the environment in which Cole painted his masterpieces. An exhibit inside the main house described his artistic process in greater detail, from his interest in color theory to how he mixed his pigments. I also got to go into the new studio, which Cole used in the last year of his life. It has recently been restored and is now an exhibition space. The current show* at the time I visited addressed Cole’s interest in architecture, including the architectural elements in his paintings as well as the two or three architectural projects he completed in his career. The highlight of the exhibition was his famous The Architect’s Dream, temporarily on loan from its current owner. Until I saw it up close, I never realized how many people are in the image. Hundreds of tiny figures crowd the porches, terraces, and ledges of the structures in the painting. In general, I was surprised by how much detail he included in all of his works that you don’t show up in photographs. In addition to the works on display in the new studio, quite a few of Cole’s paintings hang inside the house. I was particularly taken by a strange scene of a dark and stormy outcropping with a scary-looking horseman in the foreground. According to our guide, it was cut from a larger (but equally atypical) religious painting. Bleak and ominous, it was much more what I would expect from a German Romantic painter than from Cole, and I was quite drawn to its unusualness.

*Please note that I visited Cedar Grove in the summer of 2016. The special exhibitions and featured contemporary artists have changed many times over since them. The same is true of Olana.

Frederick Edwin Church’s home, Olana, in Hudson, NY.

Frederick Edwin Church was Thomas Cole’s student who grew to be far more commercially successful than his teacher. His home, Olana, is a fantastical castle he designed based on the architecture he observed in his extensive global travels. The overall structure is Persian or Moorish in style, with colorful exterior mosaics, windows and doors crowned by ogee arches, striped awnings above colonnaded porches, and numerous towers and turrets. Inside, this pseudo-Islamic taste prevails in the main architectural features, but individual rooms’ decoration pay tribute to different cultures of the world, including medieval European, Chinese, Indian, and South American. Copies of old master paintings hang in the medieval dining room, while the studio displays his collection of Central and South American sculpture, and paintings by Cole and other Hudson River School artists hangs beside Church’s throughout the house. Unfortunately, the house is rather dark even on a sunny day, and I couldn’t enjoy the art as well as I would have liked. However, I still enjoyed Church’s massive painting of Petra in Jordan, which hangs above a fireplace on the ground floor. An exhibition on the second floor discussed the influence of German scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt on Church’s travels and work.

The View from Olana.

Sitting high up in the mountains, Olana has an unrivaled view of the Hudson River. Church carefully cultivated the landscape of his sprawling property; he had several winding roads made to drive to and from the house and even commissioned a man-made lake! According to one of the docents, he also planted hundreds of trees, and I was surprised to notice that more trees are visible at both Church’s and Cole’s residences now than appear in the artists’ depictions of those same views. Every aspect of Olana’s landscape, building, and collection has been meticulously preserved since the last Church family member left. One of the docents said it is most likely the best-preserved artist’s residence of its age in the world. It certainly presents a huge contrast to Thomas Cole’s simple home, paralleling the Hudson River School’s great rise in popularity between the two artists’ generations. While Cole spent years building up his patronage, Church became successful at a very young age and achieved widespread acclaim during his lifetime. His style is different than Cole’s – more colorful and dramatic, perhaps – but clearly related.

An eclectic interior at Olana.

Speaking of related, the curators at both the Cedar Grove and Olana have recently began making an effort to connect with contemporary art they see as related to Cole’s and Church’s art. At Cole’s home, works by local artist Jason Middlebrook hung throughout the house. Geometric abstract paintings on leftover pieces of lumber, his works are aesthetically dissimilar to Cole’s but clearly related in their interest in the nature and preservation of the Catskill region. Middlebrook is apparently the first in a series of 21st-century artists whose works will be displayed in the house. I love the idea highlighting contemporary artists “in conversation with Cole”, and the series’s title suggests, but struggle with the aesthetics of displaying these works inside the home. At Olana, an exhibition in a small outbuilding near the visitors’ center displayed twenty-one artists’ designs for a summer house at Olana. Documentary evidence apparently suggests that such a structure once existed, but no indication of its appearance can be found, so Olana asked these artists to imagine and render what it might look like. The results were everything from historically-respectful buildings harmonizing with the main house to fantastical multi-tiered pools on pedestals. I wish I had seen the main house before this exhibition, as I think I would have been able to better appreciate it. I also wish I had reserved slots on a guided tour in advance. They fill up quickly, as I learned, and the self-guided tour is not nearly as informative.

Olana’s impressive staircase.

For any art lover in the Catskill area, I would highly recommend visiting Olana and the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. There’s also the Hudson River School Art Trail, an unofficial walking or hiking trail of areas and views important to the Hudson River School and its artists. I didn’t get to walk the trail beyond the two houses, but I can’t imagine the views get any less beautiful as the trail progresses. I hope that all the rest of you had a nice summer. Did any of you get to have art or history-related adventures, too? If so, I would love to hear about them!

Me waiting to be let into Olana. I felt like a Rivendell elf sitting on this bench.


Update January 1, 2019: Frederic Church’s Olana on the Hudson: Art, Landscape, Architecture (New York: Rizzoli Electra, 2018) is a beautiful book about Olana that was released in late 2018. It contains spectacular photographs of the house, its landscape, and its views of the Hudson River and Catskill mountains, all by Larry Lederman. The book also contains essays by various authors about Church and Olana. Topics include Church’s life and work, the creation of Olana, how designing the house and grounds fit into his career as a landscape painter, and the preservation of the house and landscape. Produced by The Olana Partnership and edited by two of its curators, this is a really lovely book that celebrates why this place is so special. The photos alone are well worth buying the book for.

Click here to purchase through Amazon. (As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. However, I only recommend books that I have personally read and enjoyed.)

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4 thoughts on “Hudson River School Day

  1. I’ve just discovered your blog thanks to the inimitable Sean Manning; I was led here by gargoyles, but I’ll gladly stick around for the wide-ranging art history talk.

    To answer your question about summer art-history adventures: I’m a medievalist, but the big art moment of my summer came in July when I stumbled into the world of Zuni carvings. The Lady of the House and I picked up a small carving at a jewelry shop out west run by a guy who feigned far more knowledge of Zuni artists than he actually had. (He wasn’t nefarious; he was merely incurious.) When we got home, did some research, and contacted an expert, we were pleased to discover that we now own a minor piece by one of the living greats in the field. Had the jewelry-shop guy known what he was selling, he could have asked for at least three times as much, but we don’t plan to turn around and profit from it. With its interesting story and the personal connection we now have to it, the piece is worth more to us than whatever money we could make from it.

    1. Unexpected art history adventures like that can be the best kind! I don’t really know anything about Zuni jewelry, but I remember reading a year or so ago about someone who was studying it or writing a book about it. I wish I could remember the details now. Thanks for stopping by and sharing that story. 🙂

      1. Oh, I have to confess, I knew zip about Zuni carving until eight weeks ago! It’s been fun to start from scratch, though, and I’m finding these modern carvings (divorced from all religious function when sold to outsiders) a good “in” for learning more about the culture.

        I’m envious of your Hudson River-themed trip. I’ve been meaning to get to Olana in particular for years; housing prices being what they are, I’m forced to live vicariously through dead eccentrics…

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