Thomas Cole Historic Site Opens Its 2013 Sunday Salon Series

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.

Elizabeth Jacks, Director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, greets visitors at the Sunday Salon reception.

Elizabeth Jacks, Director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, greets visitors at the Sunday Salon reception.

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 fourEd IMG_0523 blog 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.

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Boiceville Rises Again

ImageThe entreaty that we read in more than one of the Psalms, “God, save me, pull me free from the raging waters,” could all too easily be applied to several towns and villages along Ulster County’s Route 28. Boiceville is one of those towns. In the early twentieth century, the original site of Boiceville was one of several in the Esopus Valley that were moved or destroyed in order to make room for the Ashokan Reservoir. The valley would be flooded to create a water supply for the burgeoning population of New York City, 120 miles to the south. A meticulously researched film by area resident and professional filmmaker Tobe Carey documents this event in heartbreaking detail.

ImageIn a sense, Boiceville was one of the fortunate towns. It was relocated, while several of the others were demolished without a trace. Today when you drive along Route 28, you can see signs indicating the former sites of the Esopus Valley towns that either disappeared or were displaced.

The flooding of the Esopus Valley for the AshokanImage Reservoir was not the last water threat to ravage this Ulster County area. In August 2011 Hurricane Irene devastated towns from Phoenicia to as far west as Margaretville and Prattsville. The recovery still goes on.

Last week I drove out to Boiceville, chiefly in search of the viewpoint from which the nineteenth-century landscape artist Asher B. Durand painted his masterpiece High Point: Shandaken Mountains. We had located it at approximately the point at which Routes 28 and 28A meet, which happens to be where Boiceville begins.

I’m not certain whether I found the exact spot for Durand’s painting, but I did find a Boiceville recently risen from the effects of Irene. Why, I wondered, did the local florist display a sign that so insistently proclaimed that he was open?  Then when I pulled up to the parking lot for the Boiceville IGA Market and other businesses and saw the huge signs thanking the community and the volunteers, the light bulb went off in my head. Wanting to support the local economy, I went into the market, bought some delicious rolls and deli meats, and began chatting with the locals. Sure enough, the supermarket had been closed for eight weeks until the Irene waters that had flooded the store’s basement and main floor could be cleared. And the florist–he had only just reopened after the hurricane had taken its toll. The Rotary Club helped to coordinate massive relief and fundraising efforts, to the extent that $12,000 still remains to be distributed, in 2012, to people who still need it.

ImageThe need still persists.  And so does the existence of these amazing communities who rally, coordinate, and cooperate in order, with God’s help, to pull themselves from the raging waters.

My collection of Favorite Photos of 2011 is now up on my website in its own gallery, Several of the photos, of course, are from the Hudson Valley. I invite you to visit my website to check them out. If you wish to purchase any prints, I’m offering a 10% discount on all purchase with a minimum order of $10.00.  Just use Coupon Code NYSP12; valid until January 31, 2012.