Thomas Cole’s studio rises from ground to enrich connection to artist

We might wish that Thomas Coles New Studio in Catskill had somehow survived from the 1840s until now, with all its vintage wood and rippled glass. We could then feel, maybe, what Cole experienced that one final year he worked there, 1847. 

But we are left with a richer narrative, a story about loss, about cultural amnesia and then about an awakening and a kind of redemption. We have warm stories of Cole scholars kicking the weeds at the neglected Thomas Cole House site in Catskill, where the main residence and grounds had survived but where the footprint of the New Studio was an empty patch of weeds. I have my own memory of poking around there in the 1980s with a bit of astonished wonder that it looked so abandoned. This is Thomas Cole were talking about. 

In the last three decades, this humble bit of land has been transformed, with the house and original studio and other outbuildings preserved and restored. Now, a sparkling simulacrum of the New Studio stands, a structure built from scratch and finished in 2015 using archival documents.  

And this summer, a crowning flourish: the interior of the studio has been configured to match, in an approximate way, what it looked like as Cole left it, when he died of pleurisy in 1848, plucked from the height of his career. That is the simple, profound, thrust of this summers exhibition, Thomas Coles Studio: Memory and Inspiration. 

Walking in,  it feels more like a museum than a painters atelier. At the far wall there is a display of one of Coles large unfinished works on an easel, with some artistic accoutrements on view like a palette and a mortar and pestle. If its a bit tidy, it still strives for authenticity. Its certainly true Cole surrounded himself with his own paintings, which are on view, and he worked on increasingly large canvases by the large, north light window.  

After Coles death, the scene was kept intact as a shrine so other painters could visit. John Cropsey wrote that the Cole family maintained the studio as if Mr. Cole would be in in a few minutes, for everything remains as when he last left painting. The picture he last painted on yet remains on the easel. In this way, Coles influence on what we call the Hudson River School, including painters from Cropsey and Coles disciple Asher Durand to Frederic Church, continued well after his death. 

This is an important show. It has historic heft, if not swagger. You might be one of those who will say: Im glad I saw this. (I am.) The real success, if you squint a bit, is in conjuring up something keen from the foggy past. 

But it is also a full blown, densely rich exhibition of Coles work. Many of the pieces come from small or private collections, and this is likely the one chance well have of seeing them. There are early works unsold ones and studies and later works, including his last completed painting, The Good Shepherd. 

The best of these are visually stunning and still meaningful almost two centuries later. Tornado in an American Forestfrom 1831 reminds us of the raw, ravaged scenery that captivated Cole. A small flower study from 1847 is a suggestion it was Nature more than God that most directly inspired him. 

But there is that other, grandiose side of Cole. The four small 1839 oils, Study for the Voyage of Life,have the moody rigor we relish, with an intensity surpassing the larger finished paintings. They also remind us that he was a devout man, and he had lofty intentions for the humble landscape genre, which meant inserting moral or religious meaning.  

As it happens, the landscape painters of his time his adulators were themselves turning away from moral and literary content, leaving Coles oeuvre increasingly isolated in the Hudson River School canon. Yet they paid homage to the person, to the mastery of his craft and to his deeply felt intentions, which are the true marks of any great artist. 


Thomas Coles Studio: Memory And Inspiration”  

Where: Thomas Cole House, 218 Spring St. in Catskill

Hours: Friday-Sunday 9:45 a.m.-5 p.m. (thru June 30) 

Thursday-Tuesday 9:45 a.m.-5:00 p.m. (July 1 to October 30) 

Admission: $14-$20. Free for members and those younger than 16.  



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