The Sunday Salons are always my favorite event at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. These presentations, each by an expert in their field, are a great way to learn more about Thomas Cole and the other artists of the Hudson River School as well as to meet up and chat with familiar faces and to meet new people who share your interest in Cole and his friends.
The 2013 Sunday Salon season began with an illustrated lecture by Kevin Avery on “Cole and the American Revolution in Landscape.” Dr. Avery, Senior Research Scholar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, is no stranger to Cedar Grove and his talks are guaranteed to be outstanding. This time his starting point was the insight that “our [the American] wilderness was not always our mecca, but our dread.” It was threatening–a place to be feared.
Cole’s originality lay in avoiding the pleasant and orderly depiction of landscape and, instead, confronting the dread head-on by depicting, in his paintings, that which was feared. His early Kaaterskill Falls, one of three paintings that astounded the artist JohnTrumbull when he saw them in a Lower Manhattan gallery, is an excellent example. This was an era when consciously exposing oneself to something thrilling or frightening–Coleridge’s deliberately dangerous descent of Sca Fell comes to mind–was becoming the fashion, and whether intentionally or not, Cole played into this trend.
Particularly fascinating to me were the illustrations that showed not only Cole’s own paintings (and those of his Hudson River colleagues and epigones) but also those of his European forebears–the established artists whose techniques Cole was able to adapt for his own aesthetic. No matter how original or how revolutionary, no artist–whether visual, musical, or literary–suddenly springs up like Venus fully armed from the head of Zeus (a pity the musicologists who made their careers writing about composer Hector Berlioz in the 1960s and ’70s preferred for the most part to ignore this), but, rather, learned from their predecessors and developed and adapted what they learned. The predecessors may have been famous–in Cole’s case one thinks of Salvator Rosa, from whom he got the idea of incorporating blasted tree trunks into his landscapes, or Claude Lorrain, paragon of the “beautiful” aesthetic–or they may have been obscure, but we do wrong to ignore this historical dimension of an artist’s work and thereby decrease our potential for understanding them.
As an English immigrant, Thomas Cole was conversant with English landscape techniques and so was able to adopt them for his own use. Similarly, Albert Bierstadt, having come to America from Germany where he painted the Alps, was well suited to paint the Rocky Mountains. This is the kind of information that really enhances one’s enjoyment of the artists one admires.
The remaining Sunday Salons will be held on February 10, March 10, and April 14–this last one absolutely not to be missed because it will be devoted to Barbara Novak, aptly called “Pioneer in American Art History.” For more information please visit the website–I wonder what Thomas Cole would think if he were to come back and learn that he has a website.
Another local note: Before making my way to Catskill for Dr. Avery’s presentation, I drove up to the village of Athens four miles up the road (Route 385) to enjoy its historic architecture, the Athens Rural Cemetery (with such familiar and famous names as Van Tassel), and, finally, lunch in the lovely Riverside Cafe down on the aptly-named Water Street. If you’re coming from a distance, you might want to incorporate this walking tour into your day.