The Birthplace of American Landscape Painting- Thomas Cole's Studio

Who doesn't want to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves? That's always been at the heart of landscape painting, an art form that is most often a hymn of praise to our earthly planet.

Above is one of my favorite paintings, Schroon Mountain by the first great American painter who turned his focus on the look and feel of the wilderness, Thomas Cole (1801-1848). When I was in my grad school painting program from 1970-72 at Indiana University I got a hold of a book that had a splendidly colored reproduction of this painting. This painting was one of the spurs that propelled me into becoming a landscape artist myself. 

Cole's oil (from 1838, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art) depicts a mountain in New York State's Adirondacks. I feel it is one of Cole's best. The artist masterfully breaks up what could have been a monotonous jumble of 10,000 individual trees into dramatically contrasting large shapes. He cleverly plays off a spotlighted and highly textured foreground foothill against the surprisingly smoothed-down broad flanks of the mountain itself. 

I spent a rainy week in the Adirondack Mountains last month and saw similar duets of clouds wrapping around mountain peaks. It's stirring.

I first met Cole while an undergrad art major at Oberlin College's Allen Memorial Art Museum that had an early Cole, Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill), the artist did when he was only 24, thirteen years earlier than the previous painting. Allen's Cole had a background and sky that totally pulled me in every time I visited it. The foreground strikes an unexpected note with a deer who turns and looks so directly at you that you might feel self conscious . Looking at the painting today I realize now how Cole was still finding his footing. 

Cole was largely self-taught. Born in England, he came to the US when young with his family, landing in Steubenville, OH. He learned rudimentary lessons about painting from an itinerant portrait painter named Stein. He moved briefly to Pittsburgh and then on to Philadelphia, where he drew from the collection of plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculptures at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. For a painter without extensive training Cole's work is remarkably impressive. 

In his own time it garnered real attention and a student for Cole, the younger Frederic Church who went on to an amazing career as a 2nd generation member of what became known as the Hudson River School painters. 

The Hudson River painters saw what compared to Europe seemed an untouched wilderness (more often than not ignoring the thousands of years of its native inhabitants' residency). But despite that they produced a genuine and deep visual poetry about the natural world's vastness and power. In our times of ecological danger, their wholehearted delight in nature assumes an added contemporary  relevance. 

In 1825 Cole traveled up the Hudson River and rented a room in the town of Catskill, New York on a large farm called Cedar Grove. Apparently he found it to his liking, returning additional summers and eventually marrying the landlord's niece Maria Bartow in 1836 and moving in permanently. Here's the main house, restored and opened to the public in 2001 as the Thomas Cole National Historic Site (if you follow the link, there's quite a good video online about Cole's life and his place in American art).

My wife and I visited Cedar Grove last month, having finally managed to schedule in a visit there. We took an enjoyable guided tour with Melissa Gavilanes, Cedar Grove's Education and Programs Coordinator, of the home, the grounds, and one of Cole's surviving studios (Cole's second studio, that he designed himself, unfortunately no longer survives, though there are plans to rebuild it once the fundraising reaches its goal). 

Here's the main house looking very much as it did in Cole's day.

For most of his time at Cedar Grove Cole used a room off of the stables for a studio. Here's an outside view of the studio with the entrance steps at the right.

Here's me sitting on the steps leading up to Cole's studio.

And here's his studio, with one of his heavy easels in the foreground (photo courtesy of the Cedar Grove's website).

Even if you don't take the guided tour, Cedar Grove has some excellently produced signage laying out the basics of Cole's work and life at Cedar Grove.

A photo on one of the outdoor signs showing the interior of the main house.

And a map of the property as it was in Cole's day. The farm abutted the Hudson River, seen at the far right.

And what must be one of the most elegant outhouses afforded to any 19th century American painter...

In the main house there's a museum quality exhibition space where each season a Hudson River School themed show is mounted. This summer's impressive offering features Albert Bierstadt in New York and New England.  It's a beautiful little show, curated by Annette Blaugrund, the former curator at the National Academy Museum in New York. Bierstadt, while best know for his mammoth panoramas of the American West, also did work among his fellow Hudson River artists back east. Here's his Mt. Ascutney from Claremont, New Hampshire of 1862 on loan from the Fruitlands Museum.

I have a few more photos I want to post and some additional Cole paintings I want to talk about. I'll put them up in a new blog post on Thursday, July 4 (why does that date ring a bell?).


  1. a very interesting post and thanks to you i am glad to have discovered it. i have never heard of Thomas Cole before so this has been very enlightening for me.


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