The Resurgence of Catskill Village

Ed IMG_1697 s

You don’t have to live in New York State to have heard of the Catskill Mountains—such classic American authors as Washington Irving have made sure of that—but the village of Catskill? Well, its reputation doesn’t spread quite so far—at least, not now and not yet.

Ed IMG_1691 sIt wasn’t always the case.

Despite its name, Catskill isn’t a mountain town—it’s a river town, a very old river town, and therein lie its history and its claim to fame. Native Americans were on hand to greet Henry Hudson when he reached what is now Catskill on his voyage up the river that bears his name. The first Dutch settler, one Killiaen van Rensselaer, likely came to Catskill in 1630. Catskill was incorporated as a village in 1806. Even before this, it had established its importance as a crossroads for commercial and leisure travel. The Susquehanna Turnpike, completed in 1801, had Catskill as its terminus. Thus Catskill became a major point for travel to the American West. Travelers coming up the river from New York—before decent roads were built, steamboats were the method of transportation—would change at Catskill for Albany or Montreal to the north, or the Berkshires or Boston to the east.

One of Catskill’s most renowned residents, as is well known, was Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School ofEd IMG_1684 s painting. But did you know that Samuel Wilson, the original prototype of the popular “Uncle Sam” figure, was also based in Catskill? Wilson was a government meat inspector who was responsible for stamping “U.S.” onto shipments of meat bound for West Points and other destinations to the south during the war of 1812—hence “Uncle Sam.”

The 19th and early 20th centuries were prosperous times for Catskill. In addition to tourism—in Main Street alone several nice hotels welcomed longer-term vacationers as well as tourists wanting to spend a night here either before or after a sojourn in the Catskill Mountains to the west—the shipbuilding, tanning, and other industries flourished here. By the mid-20th century Catskill entered a period of decline, but its bicentennial, celebrated in 2006, provided impetus for a revitalization, as residents and owners of buildings were encouraged to breathe new life into the classic architecture.  Local historian Ed IMG_2864 sRichard Philp, author of Catskill Village in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, credits the restoration of Thomas Cole’s house Cedar Grove, now a National Historic Site, as a major factor in Catskill’s rebirth.

Here are some photos I took last Sunday on a walk through Catskill, along with one I took earlier of the Catskill Country Store. I stopped in for an enjoyable chat with proprietor Carol Wilkinson and can highly recommend her coffee and other tasty products. The Thomas Cole House was having its annual Open House, so some of the photos are from that unfailingly enjoyable event.

Drinks, snacks and lots of fun abounded at the Thomas Cole site’s Open House! This was also a great opportunity to see the current art exhibition on 19th-century painter Albert Bierstadt for free.Ed IMG_1703 s

 

 

 

 

Ed IMG_1706 sThomas Cole himself was on hand to greet visitors.

 

 

Last but not least: Our book Historic Hudson Valley was for sale at the Visitor Center!Ed IMG_1702 s

Advertisements

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.

Lively Arts Scene on the Mountaintop

On a recent Sunday afternoon I drove up to the Mountaintop region of Greene County—the villages along Route 23A—to check out what was happening, especially since some interesting art events were available. My first stop: XTreme Barns and Beyond, an exhibition of photographs by Richard Schepper at the Kaaterskill Fine Arts Gallery in Hunter. Be prepared to be surprised; intrigued; to wish the photographer were there so you could ask, “But how … ? Why … ?” Whatever — you will definitely not be bored. A gifted photographer of nature scenes both stunning and serene, Richard Schepper pushes the envelope when it comes to walking (or blurring) the lines between photography and painting. Don’t miss his show; it closes October 28.  Kudos to the gallery and director Carolyn Bennett for hosting this challenging exhibition.

My next “art” destination was Catskill and Thomas Cole’s House, but first I stopped in Tannersville to enjoy the colorful buildings on Route 23A. Tannersville is the mountaintop place for restaurants. This picture shows Susan Kleinfelder’s Rip van Winkle “Breast Cancer Awareness” statue outside the Tannersville General Store, one of many artistic renditions of ol’ Rip in  “Rip Lives 2012,” the third annual such event sponsored by local Mountaintop businesses.

The Thomas Cole Historic Site was holding its annual open house, always a good time to enjoy free admission to Cole’s house and studio (including the special exhibition of the year) and a variety of entertainment and other activities for all ages.  I interviewed Thomas Cole himself (a.k.a. Catskill Mayor Vincent Seeley), who was gratified to see such an enthusiastic turnout and amazed to learn that he had such a thing as a Website. The 2012 special exhibition features landscape paintings by 19th-century artist Louis Rémy Mignot. Mignot produced a variety of masterpieces in his tragically short life; having just seen Richard Schepper’s daring exhibit in which several of the photos looked more like paintings (Braque came to mind), I was now face to face with a painting—Mignot’s  View Across the Valley of Pierstown —that could well have been mistaken for a photograph. Art is amazing. And here are some photos from the event:

All Roads in Catskill Lead to Thomas Cole

Unless visiting Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, my drives to Catskill have usually taken me through the town en route to somewhere else–usually over the Rip van Winkle Bridge to Olana or some other Columbia County destination. Deciding last Sunday to stop and check out Catskill’s Main Street, I discovered a visual treat of colorful old homes and stores, such as the Catskill Country Store pictured here. Topographically, the Main Street of Catskill is interesting in that it is crisscrossed by alleyways that, on one side, lead up a hill to a more residential part of town and, on the other side, take you downhill to what I later discovered, when checking a map, is the waterfront of Catskill Creek. The very raw weather that day was not conducive to undertaking my usual curiosity detours, but I did take one, and a fortuitous one it was, because I then discovered St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, where Thomas Cole was an active parishioner. This photo shows one of the beautiful windows in the church, which stands on a hill overlooking the town and the Catskill Mountains in the distance.

OK, I must confess: The ultimate purpose of this visit to Catskill was Thomas Cole-related. I was headed to a lecture at Cedar Grove. But first I stopped at the local cemetery to visit Cole’s grave, armed with a map given me by Marie Spano on my last visit to Cedar Grove. Cole and his wife, Maria Bartow, and other family members are buried there, all together. On Cole’s grave is engraved “The Lord is my shepherd,” and after his religious conversion he did indeed live by those words from Psalm 23.

The lecture being given last Sunday was the second of the four Sunday Salons for this season. Kevin Sharp, who has an amazing reputation as a gallery museum and director and curator of groundbreaking exhibitions all over the country, spoke about how Cole drew inspiration from such English Romantic poets as Coleridge and Byron for his later work. Like many first-rate artists, Cole sometimes rebelled against the idea of depicting scenes from poetry in order to please clients and instead probed further to uncover and interpret the poem’s deeper meaning. As a photographer I could well relate to the discussion of documentation vs. interpretation and so I was glad to be able to purchase Kevin Sharp’s book Poetic Journey, which includes a relevant article.

The next Sunday Salon at Cedar Grove will be a particularly exciting one. Did you know that Thomas Cole now has an exhibition at the Louvre in Paris? Dr. Katherine Bourguignon, the curator of “New Frontier: Thomas Cole and the Birth of Landscape Painting in America,” will be speaking about the exhibition on Sunday March 11. If you are interested in Thomas Cole, the Hudson River School, or nineteenth-century landscape painting in general, please consider attending this unique event. You can visit the Thomas Cole National Historic Site’s website for further information including directions and to sign up for emails reminding you of future events.

——-

Please visit my website where you can see my gallery of photos of the Hudson Valley and the Catskills. My Print of the Month, which is of a favorite nature site in Rhode Island, is available for purchase at a special price until February 29.

Thomas Cole Site Celebrates Tenth Anniversary

Cedar Grove 1

It’s always a wonderful success story when a cultural landmark gets rescued from oblivion by a group of interested and dedicated people. When the landmark is the former home and studio of one of America’s foremost nineteenth-century landscape painters and has not only been snatched from the demolition crew’s clutches but also been declared a National Historic Site, that’s more than wonderful–it’s a major cause for rejoicing.  And on Sunday September 25 Hudson Valley art lovers were indeed rejoicing as they gathered at Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, NY, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its opening.

Cedar Grove lawnLandscape artist Thomas Cole (1801-1848), founder of what came to be known as the Hudson River School of art, rented space at Cedar Grove beginning in the early 1830s, and in 1836, with his marriage to Maria Bartow, niece of the owner, it became and remained his permanent home until his all-too-early death in 1848. Visit Cedar Grove and you will readily understand what an inexhaustible fount of inspiration it was for him.  Not for nothing is this site spoken of as “Where American Art Was Born.”

I remember well the progress of the site from virtual ruin to cultural and historic success story. One day a number of years ago, aware that Cedar Grove lay somewhere on the road between the Thruway and the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, my son and I drove up and down and finally asked at a gas station on the corner of Routes 385 and 23–in other words, right across the road (locally named Spring Street) from the site. The attendant had no idea what we were talking about. Parking our car in a nearby side street, we looked around and eventually realized that we were standing right in front of it–only it was covered in scaffolding, and construction machinery lay strewn on the grounds.Cedar Grove lawn 2

What a difference today, when the Thomas Cole National Historic Site is well signposted, it can boast of having had more than 60,000 visitors since Opening Day, and a steady stream of cars brought people to celebrate its tenth anniversary! Entrance to the Main House was free, people enjoyed strolling the grounds, many came to the Visitors Center to take in the film that was being shown, to enjoy the homemade cookes and apple cider, and to purchase books and cards or simply to pick up literature from which to learn more.

Thankfully the weather cooperated, and so outside the Main House as well some dedicated volunteers were talking with visitors and explaining more about Thomas Cole and the site, one lady was teaching a young girl how to paint, and the Milayne Jackson Trio provided musical entertainment from the deck of the Main House.  It was a great day for celebration, not only that the Thomas Cole National Historic Site has become one of the Hudson Valley’s major cultural successes, but also that so many people who were unfamiliar with Cole and his art, attracted by the signs and balloons and other publicity, were visiting and getting acquainted with the founder of the Hudson River School and his legacy. Kudos to Elizabeth Jacks, Director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, to Marie Spano who has edited a lovely booklet of excerpts from Cole’s writings, and to the corps of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers (including the interns) who bring this place to life.