Emerging Young Artist Steve Dolan Debuts Hunter Exhibition

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Steve Dolan is a worthy successor to the Hudson River Painters — so much so that this New Hampshire native, when he first visited the Mountain Top area of the Catskills, was so taken with it that he decided to move to Hunter and pursue his passion for painting the spectacular (his word) scenery he found there. Now his long hours of creativity have come to fruition in a new exhibit at the Kaaterskill Fine Arts Gallery, Main Street, Hunter. Entitled “Atmospheres of Hunter and Beyond,” Steve’s exhibit features a generous selection of his paintings mostly from the region around Hunter but also a few from the White Mountains of his native New Hampshire.

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You can read an interview with Steve on the Catskill Mountain Foundation’s website and learn more about his background and what inspires him as an artist. The Hudson River Painters are clearly an influence — I thought particularly of Thomas Cole and especially some of his more “fantastic” (my word) paintings.  But let me not waste time trying to describe Steve’s extraordinary work — I took a couple of quick photos when I stopped in last week just after the show had been hung, and I hope they will OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAgive you some idea of his approach to his art, but most of all, I urge you to go and see his show. It’s at the Kaaterskill Fine Arts Gallery between now and July 5, with an opening reception this Saturday May 30 from 2 to 4 pm and an art talk on June 20 from 1 to 2 pm.

Click here to read the details, including the interview with Steve and information about opening times. “Atmospheres of Hunter and Beyond” — don’t miss it.

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Scenic Hudson 50 Years

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The fiftieth anniversary of Scenic Hudson was celebrated yesterday with a magnificent exhibition in Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall. Twelve outstanding photographers from the Hudson Valley contributed their work that (to quote from the special brochure) “resonates with the organization’s mission and major achievements while also addressing the complex conservation challenges on the horizon.” The variety of content and artistic approaches displayed by these photographers was amazing–a tribute to the IMG_1721 sbeauty and sublimity of the Hudson Valley landscape and to the challenges that face Scenic Hudson in ensuring that this beauty and the ecological health of our region are preserved for all the future.    I would imagine that not since Robert Glenn Ketchum published his book The Hudson River & the Highlands has any photographer consistently documented, in an artistically compelling way, those conservation challenges the way Susan Wides and other artists in this exhibition have done. Susan’s work is inspired by the Hudson River landscape painters of the 19th century, and let’s not forget that the founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole, is considered one of the first spokespersons for the American conservationist movement.

And then there are the photographers who speak eloquently by capturing this beauty so as to remind us of what a treasure we have and, by implication, what we stand to lose if we don’t act with foresight.  As always, Beacon-based Robert Rodriguez Jr. is a very great favorite of mine, and I sometimes visit the RiverWinds Gallery there to treat my eyes (and my soul, dare I say) to his work on display.

Scenic Hudson is responsible for some sixty parks that they have created or enhanced, and I’m grateful to Metro-North Railroad, and toIMG_1725 s the fine-art photographic paper company Canson Infinity, who donated the paper on which the photos were printed, for bringing to the attention of the thousands of commuters who pass through Grand Central Station’s portals each day the fact that it’s Scenic Hudson they have to thank for so many of the places that they likely visit and enjoy on weekends. Just to name a few that I’ve actually visited: Burger Hill, Esopus Meadows Preserve, Foundry Dock Park, and Walkway over the Hudson. And in visiting their website I was delighted to learn that on Thursday October 24 they celebrated the opening of the new park at the West Point Foundry Preserve at Cold Spring. Rest assured, I’ll be blogging about this historically significant site before long.

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 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: