Kingston Offers Fine Introduction to Artist Jervis McEntee

Jervis McEntee (1828-1891) was one of the second generation of Hudson River School artists. Born in Rondout (Kingston), he painted many scenes of Kingston itself (which serve as interesting records of how the town was developing) and of the surrounding countryside, areas that will be especially familiar to anyone who knows present-day Ulster County between Routes 28 and just north of Route 212. In particular, it was a painting entitled Mink Hollow that sparked my interest in wanting to see the exhibit currently on display at The Friends of Historic Kingston (FOHK) Gallery on Wall Street, Kingston (just opposite the historic Dutch Church).

A portion of the exhibit space devoted to McEntee

A portion of the exhibit space devoted to McEntee

Although McEntee traveled farther afield, particularly to areas of New England that were starting to increase in popularity among vacationers as well as artists, most of the paintings in the FOHK exhibit depict the general area of Kingston and the Catskills. Not all the paintings, however, are titled with their exact spots, which raised two questions of personal interest to me: (1) Do any of the paintings with, e.g., the word pond in the title in fact depict Cooper Lake?  (2) Did McEntee paint any scenes from the Esopus Valley villages that were later flooded to make way for the Ashokan Reservoir?

The exhibit space provides ample information about McEntee’s life, including photographs, so that the FOHK have arranged a most admirable introduction to this Hudson River School artist who is not one of the best known (he did apprentice briefly with Frederic E. Church), though he did do an excellent job of depicting scenes in this particular area of the Catskills and their foothills.

I have only one quibble — a minor,personal quibble from someone who dearly loves that area of the world: The exhibit ends

These tombstones are in the yard of the historic Old Dutch Church, across the street from the FOHK Gallery.

These tombstones are in the yard of the historic Old Dutch Church, across the street from the FOHK Gallery.

with McEntee’s painting The Doge’s Palace (Venice), and I couldn’t help wonder what was the motivation behind including it. Stylistically it jars with the other work and (to this paranoid observer, anyhow) it almost seemed an apology that the artist had painted so many scenes of woods and streams in this (then) somewhat obscure area of the New World.

Kudos are due to the Black Dome Press for publishing a superb exhibition catalog, Jervis McEntee: Kingston’s Artist of the Hudson River School. The catalog contains not only beautiful reproductions of all the paintings and other visual material in the exhibit, but also two excellent essays by Lowell Thing and William B. Rhoads, respectively, for those who want to deepen their knowledge still further.

Just up the street, Uptown Coffee is a great place to enjoy a snack or lunch after you've seen the exhibit.

Just up the street, Uptown Coffee is a great place to enjoy a snack or lunch after you’ve seen the exhibit.

The FOHK exhibit of McEntee’s work runs through October 31, 2015. For anyone who still can’t get enough of McEntee’s work, a still larger retrospective will run at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art in nearby New Paltz from August 26 to December 13, 2015. So if you want to have your own McEntee festival, you can plan to see both exhibits on the same day (the Kingston venue is open on Fridays and Saturdays); they’re separated by just one exit on the Thruway. I’m hoping the Dorsky retrospective will include some of McEntee’s paintings of the New England coast.

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Hudson River Painters: The Truth of Asher B. Durand

Opposites attract, so they say. That could well apply to the two foremost painters of the 19th-century Hudson River School, Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Asher B. Durand (1796-1886). Of course, they had much in common, most notably their incredible artistic gifts and their love for being outdoors in the open, away from the noise and bustle of the city. (If they complained about the noise and bustle then, can you imagine their reaction if they were to visit it today?)

But when it came to the details — to each man’s individual approach to their work — Cole and Durand were quite different. As a photographer, I like to put it this way: If they were landscape photographers working today, Cole would have been one of the first to own a digital camera and to take full advantage of all that Photoshop has to offer in the way of processing the photos. Durand, on the other hand, would still be using a film camera — one of those large-format ones, no doubt — and would make only the most minimal use, if at all, of photo processing software.

Durand painted what he saw. It’s as simple as that. He was one of the first in America to use the plein air technique, meaning that he actually painted outdoors, painted immediately what he saw. Some of his paintings are so exact that it’s possible even today to identify the spot from which he painted a particular scene.

Durand, Beacon Hills

Durand, Beacon Hills

One such painting is Beacon Hills on the Hudson River, Opposite Newburgh. Durand’s business was such that he had to live in New York City, but he took every opportunity, especially in the nice weather, to get out and travel, not only to paint but also to walk and fish (he was an avid sportsman). For a few years (roughly late 1840s–early 1850s) he owned a vacation home in or near Newburgh, in Orange County, from which one can look right across the Hudson River to Beacon, and it was there that he painted this picture (above).

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Since I don’t live far from Newburgh, I decided to test it out. Armed with my camera and my intuition, I drove up Route 9W and parked along Water Street. On the side of the street opposite the riverfront a hill rises up, leading to some homes as well as to the city’s historic district. Since Durand painted his picture from a height, I walked up the hill with my camera and tripod. It was easy, instantaneously to see what Durand had painted. Compare the contours of the mountain peaks to see what I mean.

I didn’t aim either to replicate exactly the contents of Durand’s painting (impossible anyway–there’s now a railroad running through the scene, apparently one reason why he gave up the house after three years or so) or to process my photo to resemble the painting. Interestingly, Durand loved clouds–he was of one mind with the English painter John Constable in that–and may well have envied the sky I had that day.

Durand, Dover Plains

Durand, Dover Plains

Another scene Durand painted that is claimed to be so exact that the spot can still be located is Dover Plains, Dutchess County, New York. Dover Plains is near the Connecticut border and is, as I discovered, a challenging drive. I probably shouldn’t have trusted directions that say “When you pass the last house…” (last house where?), but I drove around and around and never found the spot. If anyone reading this can help me out, I’d be very grateful. Otherwise, one day I’ll conscript a volunteer into driving me there so I can watch out for the view.

This photograph isn’t in our new book, Historic Hudson Valley: A Photographic Tour, but plenty of other good photos are! Check it out here.

The Resurgence of Catskill Village

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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

Thomas Cole House Honors Art Historian Barbara Novak

Barbara Novak reflects on her distinguished career.

Barbara Novak reflects on her distinguished career.

Anyone seriously interested–and I don’t only mean professionals, but also people like me who are amateurs in the true sense of the word–in 19th-century American landscape painting owes a huge debt to Barbara Novak, whether or not they are even aware of it. As a doctoral student researching in Europe in the mid-1950s for her PhD dissertation on 15th-century Flemish art, Barbara Novak decided to defy convention and switch her topic to the Hudson River School artists Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand. Completing her dissertation in 1957, she joined the faculty of Barnard College the following year, and thus began a long and distinguished career of research, writing, teaching, and mentoring new research students, all of which compelled the art world to take seriously a topic that until then was virtually completely ignored. Her book trilogy Nature  and Culture: American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience, and now Voyages of the Self: Pairs, Parallels, and Patterns in American Art and Literature are classics in the field.

Elizabeth Jacks, Executive Director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, offers a welcome to the audience.

Elizabeth Jacks, Executive Director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, offers a welcome to the audience.

On Sunday April 14, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site honored Barbara Novak’s outstanding contributions to American art scholarship with a program in her honor, in which leading art scholars Ella M. Foshay, Annette Blaugrund, Adrienne Baxter Bell, and Karen Wilkin, along with literary scholar H. Daniel Peck and photographer Susan Wides each paid tribute to Dr. Novak and explained her influence on their own lives and careers. A true Renaissance woman, Dr. Novak is also a poet as well as a painter, and fifth-grader Isaac Barnes, the son of Thomas Cole Site Trustee David Barnes, read a selection of her poetry with stunning poise. Her husband, artist, author, and art critic Brian O’Doherty, was also on hand to pay special tribute to his remarkable wife–he referred to the “Barbara Diaspora”–“her students are everywhere.”

Brian O'Doherty, Dr. Novak's husband, said that no one can claim to have been more influenced by her than he!

Brian O’Doherty, Dr. Novak’s husband, said that no one can claim to have been more influenced by her than he!

Finally, Dr. Novak herself offered her own reflections on her life and career. A painter herself even before embarking on the academic study of art history, she was overwhelmed at the thought that her own paintings of flowers were now hanging in Thomas Cole’s house: “I hope he doesn’t mind,” she said. About Cole, whom she called “one of the great intellectual artists” in America, she commented that it’s impossible to exhaust his riches in a lifetime.

One has to admire not only the breadth and depth of learning and reflection Dr. Novak has brought to her chosen area of study over the years, but also the vision of the young doctoral student who, on a Fulbright grant in Europe, noted that “there were plenty of 15th-century Flemish scholars doing the same things over and over,” saw the potential in doing something new, and embarked on a lifetime study of the group she calls “my guys”–Cole, Durand, and their colleagues.

Isaac Barnes shows another side of Dr. Novak by reciting some of her poetry.

Isaac Barnes shows another side of Dr. Novak by reciting some of her poetry.

On Sunday April 28, one of the speakers at Dr. Novak’s tribute will take the podium in her own right: Annette Blaugrund, curator of the 2013 exhibition at the Thomas Cole Site Albert Bierstadt in New York & New England, will introduce the exhibition with a lecture at 2 pm. This is followed by a reception and open house from 3 to 4 pm. Why not take this opportunity to make the acquaintance of one of the leading exponents of the second generation of Hudson River School Artists?

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.