Thomas Cole was already America’s most famous landscape painter when he died suddenly at the age of 47 in February 1848.
One of the Hudson River School painters, Cole lived and worked in Catskill.
His death shook the American art world, according to Franklin Kelly, senior curator of American paintings at the National Gallery of Art.
“It was as if one of the ‘greatest peaks’ of the Catskill Mountains had suddenly disappeared,” poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant wrote at the time of Cole’s death.
Kelly is fascinated by what has become of Cole’s unfinished works – and the studio he was working in at the time of his death – since he was a graduate student in the early 1980s.
Millionaire Mystery: In 1970, this Scarsdale man vowed to give away his inherited fortune
Story: Bartlett Park in Poughkeepsie was once home to an exclusive girls’ school
Arts: Students create sculptures for the annual Mohonk Tulip Festival
Forty years later, he is the curator of a new exhibition “Thomas Cole’s Studio: Memory and Inspiration”, which looks back on the last years of the painter and these unfinished landscapes. It opens April 30 at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, then travels to the Albuquerque Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in November.
The exhibit features a selection of artworks and artefacts that reimagine what visitors would have seen upon entering Cole’s ‘new studio’, including personal items such as his guitar and memorabilia from his travels .
“Every object featured in the exhibit (except the support tables and prints) is known to have been owned and used by the artist himself,” Kelly said.
Also on display will be 26 oil paintings by Cole from the collections of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, as well as the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, as well as other museums, public and private. collections.
“The works included in the exhibit are just a sampling of the many others that were in the New Studio after Cole’s death,” Kelly said. “…They give a remarkably comprehensive view of the totality of his accomplishments as a landscape painter – there are early, mid-career and late-career works. There are finished and unfinished paintings, there are studies, etc.
“The exhibition thus offers the opportunity to appreciate what Cole has achieved, but also offers insight into his creative process in realizing his vision.”
Visitors will also be able to experience Cole’s work environment in the newly rebuilt studio, said Kelly, who noted that little of his original content is available today.
The property remained in the Cole family until 1972, when it and a small piece of land surrounding it were sold, and the studio was demolished, Kelly said. Several years later, the family was able to buy back the land where the workshop was. Eventually, the Thomas Cole Historic Site painstakingly recreated it on its original footprint, using the artist’s original design drawings and other information.
Opened in 2015, the New Studio serves as a space for exhibitions and educational programming.
“There are no known photographs of the interior of the studio during Cole’s lifetime,” Kelly said, “but later images show other types of objects that were probably also present: musical instruments like Cole’s guitar, travel souvenirs, including stones and pressed objects, leaves and flowers and assorted plaster sculptures.
“It’s exciting to bring together a selection of art and artifacts known to have been in the new studio and show it to new generations.”
After his death, many famous artists of the time, including Jasper Cropsey and Asher Durand, visited the New Studio. Kelly also visited Cole’s site when he was a student.
“I was told the house was not open to the public, but that should be fine if I just wanted to go see the property,” he said. “While wandering I came across a place where there had clearly once been a small building – I could see the vague outline of its foundations. I didn’t meet anyone while I was in Cedar Grove that day, but at some point someone confirmed that what I had seen was the location of Cole’s new studio and said it had been demolished a few years prior.”
Kelly has spent several years assembling the works and artifacts in the current exhibit, but says he’s still intrigued by the possibility that there are many more out there somewhere.
“Are there still unlocated works by Cole that I would have liked to see appear? Yes,” Kelly said. “Cropsey, for example, mentions an unfinished ‘Saint John in the Desert’, of which no trace is known.
“However, the greatest missing piece from Cole’s late career is the trio of pictures he completed for what was to be a five-painting suite titled ‘The Cross and the World.’ oil for the series in the exhibit, but these large canvases (8 feet wide) have been missing since the late 19th century…. So everyone should keep their eyes peeled for anything resembling Thomas Cole .As I’ve always told my students, you never know what might be!”
If you are going to
What: “Thomas Cole’s Studio: Memory and Inspiration”
When: April 30-Oct. 30, Friday-Sunday
Or: Thomas Cole National Historic Site, 218 Spring Street, Catskill, 518-943-7465; https://thomascole.org/
Curator Franklin Kelly offered some must-see suggestions:
“Tornado in an American Forest” (1831): This large, dramatic and ancient landscape has recently undergone extensive conservation treatment and is now more visually legible than it has been for many years. As befits his subject, it’s dark and hectic, but all the more effective for him. Don’t miss the figure of the man blown away by the wind who takes shelter behind the broken tree in the center left of the composition.
“Schroon Mountain View” (1838): This is a superb, energetic oil sketch made in the studio from drawings Cole made during his visit to the site; it served as the basis for a larger work now in the Cleveland Museum of Art that has long been recognized as one of Cole’s greatest masterpieces.
“Clouds” (c. 1838): A fine little sketch in oil on paper; its immediacy and freshness suggest that it was made outdoors.
“Frenchman’s Bay, Mount Desert Island, Maine” (1844): A rare seascape by Cole, who did not paint many. Particularly effective, although small in size, to capture the power of the waves that pound the rocky coast.
“Landscape with Clouds” (c. 1846-47): One of many important unfinished canvases that remained in the New Studio; Cole’s usual method of beginning his paintings with the sky is easily seen here, where this section of the painting appears nearly complete. The landscape below is only roughly sketched and empty except for the figures of an angel and a child carrying a cross scratched in the wet paint at lower left. We don’t know for sure what Cole wanted to do with the subject of this painting, but it is evidence that he was working ambitiously towards the end of his life to create a series of major works.”
Karen Croke is the Articles Editor for lohud.com and poughkeepsiejournal.com. Find my stories here. Contact me at [email protected]