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 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.

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.