Since the early 1800s, flocks of painters would leave New York City in the summer, with its sweltering heat, and head for the countryside. The first bunch to make a name for themselves doing this were the Hudson River School. Those intrepid artists ventured up the Hudson River to the Catskills and beyond, when traveling was tough.
In my comfortable car, I followed in their tracks, to visit the upstate New York homes of Thomas Cole and Jasper Cropsey. I can’t tell you how much you will fall in love all over again with their paintings, when you spend time in their homes. They become, well, real, and you can see what they saw and feel what they felt.
Thomas Cole came first and became the titular head of the (non-physical) Hudson River School. Although not a teacher, almost everything he painted and the way he created his compositions informed artists for several generations.
Even though Catskill, NY was already crawling with tourists by the time Cole lived at Cedar Grove, he painted its wilderness. You get a sense of what he saw from his porch. Those beloved mountains.
I could look at that view for hours, dreaming. I could also meditate on the up close and personal, seen from another porch angle.
What stories this tree can tell, and knowing that trees were hugely symbolic for Cole–a symbol of the nature we must all work to preserve–I can imagine he heard them all.
The house has been a restoration-work-in-progress. And you can really see the progress now, compared to my first visit several years ago. Now it includes Cole furniture, like his working desk. Notice the handles on the side for portability.
I have a thing for artist studios, and two of Cole’s are so lovingly recreated now. He designed them, of course, with that wonderfully consistent northern exposure, here through that window high up.
Can you make out on the easel below the notches on the side? That’s so Cole could raise and lower that horizontal stabilizer for his canvasses, which were huge. Then he could work more comfortably on different parts of the canvas. Clever!
You can also get a sense of how large the studio is, and this is the small one.
Cole made use of a camera obscura, which I didn’t know. The device uses mirror-lenses and light to create depictions (albeit upside down) of a targeted scene. The artist then has a way to create accurate details, by tracing the projected image. Maybe you can get a sense of it here.
I don’t know if Jasper Cropsey used a camera obscura for accuracy, but I’m sure the Ever Rest guide Tony would know. The Cropsey scholar gave me a private tour of the 1830s house that Cropsey and his wife bought later in life, well after the Civil War.
You can probably see why they were so attracted to this Hastings-on-Hudson cottage, despite the town’s industrial dominance. This picture, the first approach, makes the house look deceptively small.
This one gives you a better sense of the scale.
The inside is a revelation, particularly the studio Cropsey built for himself. The house has always been with the family and is now run by a foundation, so all the furnishings and art are intact from when Cropsey lived here. His presence is palpable.
Unlike so many other artists that wanted privacy and quiet in their studio, Cropsey made his workspace part of the house and the flow of activity. At one time, two pianos filled the room with music and laughter from his daughters’ playing.
Now the room has only one piano, and the walls are filled with his canvasses. All the paintings had to be repurchased. When he died, his wife sold off all remaining his paintings to pay off their debts. Unfortunately, the Hudson River School artists in 1900 were out of fashion, and she sold them for a song. By the 1970s, descendants began buying their family heritage back, still for depressed prices. They have recreated the atmosphere of the studio when Cropsey worked there.
And boy, is there ever atmosphere. Every object has a story, and Tony knows them all. But the space is commodious and certainly doesn’t feel crowded. He and I could talk for hours in there. What fun that would be.
So your homework now is to go look up these two quintessentially American artists and plan a trip to see what they saw. Who knows? You might want to paint it all, too.
P.S. If you hurry, you can see this marvelously evocative Cole painting “Architect’s Dream” at the newly opened exhibition space on the site of his second studio. The painting apparently never leaves the Toledo Museum of Art, but Cedar Grove snagged it for this inaugural exhibition featuring Cole’s architectural work.
That’s likely Cole lounging in the foreground with his architectural drawings, in this dreamscape of architectural styles. The patron refused the painting (!), which is why it hung over Cole’s mantle in Cedar Grove through several descendants. The patron wanted more landscape.
I reveled in this painting, with its Grand Tour of architectural stylings. It’s truly a must see. A rare and delightful display of Cole wit and whimsy!