July 19, 2013

field trip: the birthplace of American art

M walking the path to the Thomas Cole house 
The gracious, buttery yellow front porch
One of the front rooms of the house, painted in its original green
The front parlor room where Cole got married and where visitors would view his paintings
Cole's writing desk in the living room on the second floor 
 A small table set up for embroidery in the living room
A personal favorite - a brass bird pincushion clamped onto the table 
Inside Cole's studio, located in an outbuilding that resembled a hayloft
The beginning of the 1/2 mile nature trail leading out to the Saugerties Lighthouse  
Along the trail, looking North along the Hudson River 
A red barge and tugboat making its way down the Hudson 
Our first look at the lighthouse as we round the bend of the trail  
The front of the Saugerties Lighthouse,  a restored 19th c. lighthouse and bed & breakfast

On the way back from our week in the Catskills, we made two special detours that have been on my wish list for a while: the first was to the Thomas Cole house and studio in Catskill, NY and then the Saugerties Lighthouse.

The truth is, I am not really that into landscape painting or historic houses. But to visit the home and studio of an important historic artist and get a glimpse into their life, their process, and their interests is utterly fascinating (almost as good as reading their journals). At the top of my to-visit list is Georgia O'Keefe's home in Abiquiu, New Mexico and Frida & Diego's compound in Mexico City. But until then, a visit to the Hudson Valley home "where American art was born" suited me just fine.

Situated just outside the cute but sleepy village of Catskill, NY–where a cup of coffee was not be found but three barber shops were open for business–Cedar Grove is a jewel of a place. Meticulously restored, the house has a gracious elegance, not to mention stunning views of the Catskill mountains.

Guided through the home and studio by a young research fellow, we got a glimpse into what life was like at that time, saw Cole's writing desk, his musical instruments, his upholstered painting chair, and his extensive rock collection from all of his travels. We learned how Cole struggled to support 12(!!) members of his extended family, how he would travel for days in order to buy the raw materials to make his paint, and, in true Renaissance-man fashion,  how he would play the flute while he hiked in the Catskills. In the early 19th century, his home was a strong tourist draw for wealthy collectors, who would travel up the Hudson River to explore the majestic wilderness of the Catskills, stopping on the way to view (and purchase) Cole's paintings. According to our tour guide, Cole's paintings sold for as much as $25,000, which, in today's dollars, is like selling a painting for $685,000. Hard to imagine really.  Unfortunately, not one but two collectors died before paying for the paintings they had commissioned from Cole.

We finished off our special detours with a visit to the Saugerties Lighthouse. Built in 1869 (just 20 years after Thomas Cole's sudden death), the lighthouse juts out into the Hudson River just north of the town of Saugerties. To get out to the lighthouse, you follow a nature trail through a low-lying marshy area that actually floods twice a day because of the tides. Fully restored and turned into a bed & breakfast, the lighthouse would make a perfectly romantic getaway–if you can get a room that is (last time I checked, the earliest available was January, 2014).

If you are interested to see the locations of Cole's paintings, check out this interactive website and then there is also a fantastic virtual gallery that enables you to filter his work by location, medium, subject and even by owner. 

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