“A Something Not Found Elsewhere”: American Identity in the Catskill Mountains
By Ciara O’Neill |
If you live in New York and like to travel around the state like I do, then you have most likely become pretty acquainted with route I-87. This past weekend, after waiting for a dreary week of rain to finish, I took this highway north to visit The Thomas Cole Historic Site, which is only about an hour and fifteen minutes away from the tiny, suburban town where I live. The site, located in the New York town of Catskill, is comprised of two main structures: Thomas Cole’s art studio and his house, which both stand in the same spots as they did when Cole was alive. The studio had to be rebuilt after it was demolished in 1973 and renovations have been made, of course, in order to preserve Cole’s life’s work (this being an “act of love” according to the art dealers who bought the property) but even the huge looming tree in front of the house has been standing there since Cole moved in with his wife in 1836.
England-born artist Thomas Cole was the founder of the Hudson River School. Under Cole’s influence, this nineteenth-century art movement was launched by a group of his fellow American landscape painters. After the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the nationalism in our country was rising continuously and these artists sought to artistically set themselves apart from former European influences. Through their artwork they defined a style of art that could be coined solely with America: a style that put emphasis on the country’s natural wonders. These realistic paintings, which often depict the large, looming mountains that stand around the Hudson River and the valleys in-between, became a celebration of American identity and portrayed the ultimate separation from Europe. The intentions of the Hudson River School were to portray the wilderness and the sublime in a way they had not yet been seen; as peaceful, serene, and powerful – not to be viewed as frightening and evil.
Cole specifically shined a spotlight on the areas surrounding the Hudson River. However, his works don’t only showcase the beauty of New York but also the astounding mountainous regions of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Some of the other artists of the Hudson River School went as far as Yellowstone for artistic inspiration as well as other locations as western expansion continued. Thomas Cole’s admiration for the views he painted is set forth in one of his written works, “An Essay on American Scenery.” He writes, “It is a subject that to every American ought to be of surpassing interest; for, whether he beholds the Hudson mingling waters with the Atlantic—explores the central wilds of this vast continent, or stands on the margin of the distant Oregon, he is still in the midst of American scenery—it is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity—all are his; and how undeserving of such a birthright, if he can turn towards it an unobserving eye, an unaffected heart!” Cole was very specific in his reverence for rural landscapes and his belief that these landscapes could very well be the source of American pride. In 1825, at the very outset of his career, he visited the Catskills region in New York. It was there on Spring Street, on a property called Cedar Grove (now the Thomas Cole Historic Site) that he lived with his wife and three children for the remainder of his life.
His home is, in itself, a representation of American art. The federal-style architecture has been kept intact and with the exception of some squeaky floorboards, the house is in great condition. It is mostly furnished with decorations of the past; including the wooden guitar he bought in Italy, the dress his wife wore on their wedding day, and his books (one of them being a collection of Shakespeare’s works). My favorite room was Cole’s office, which holds the very desk he used to work at, layered with his penciled drawings and other papers. Apart from the obviously dated furniture and personal belongings, the charming house looks lived in. Just several yards away, Cole’s studio has been transformed into a gallery of his best-known works. Hung on the walls are works such as The Van Ransselaer Manor House (Albany, 1841), A View Near Tivoli (1832), and View On the Catskill, Early Autumn (1836-37). This studio also includes work from other Hudson River School artists such as Charles Herbert Moore and George Inness.
What made the most impact on me was the difference I saw between Cole’s paintings of Europe and America. While in Italy, Cole painted A View Near Tivoli (1832) an impressive image of ancient aqueduct ruins in Rome. Another one of his paintings, Interior of the Colosseum – Rome (1832), was equally astounding, with exquisite detail that makes it a realistic rendering of the Roman amphitheater. There is a shift, however, in his paintings of the Catskills. Just take a look at Autumn in the Catskills (1827) and Sunrise in the Catskill Mountains (1826), which were both painted soon after Cole came to New York. Both of these depictions of New York’s landscapes appear to be showing a completely different world, a “new world” – one that is less tainted and spoiled. There is a quality of mythic inspiration in his works, of a land unconquered. And this is what appealed to Americans during the time Cole was actively painting. What I loved most was that Cole was true and faithful in his depictions of New York’s landscape (as were the other Hudson River School artists). They weren’t creating landscapes out of their imagination; they were using the spectacular sights before them, the ones they knew could never exist anywhere else.
After spending over an hour at Cole’s historical site in Catskill, I traveled only 3 miles back over the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to the Olana New York State Historic Site. Here I found the home of Frederic Church, a member of Cole’s Hudson River School. This beautiful land of 230 acres is one of the most visited sites in New York (according to the proud local who gave me directions to the area) and most of it was designed by Church himself. At the highest point of the site, which is far uphill from the main road, stands Church’s home. This beautiful structure can actually be seen from the other side of the bridge. Church’s home has unchallenged, sweeping views of the Hudson River and the mountains surrounding it. These views served as inspiration for his art, which celebrated nature as a source of national pride and spirituality.
Thomas Cole (and Church) found something special in America, something he couldn’t find in all the years he lived in Europe. He saw untouched, raw beauty in the landscapes our great nation possesses. In my research, I stumbled upon a wonderful statement he wrote in a letter to his friend, C. Greene, in 1842: “Must I tell you that neither the Alps nor the Apennines, no, nor even Aetna itself, have dimmed, in my eyes, the beauty of our own Catskills? It seems to me that I look on American scenery, if it were possible, with increased pleasure. It has its own peculiar charm – a something not found elsewhere. I am content with nature: would that I were with art!” (Catskill Archive) Cole and the other Hudson River School painters played a crucial role in the distinguishing of American identity in art. Their hope was that the people in our nation would grow to admire, cherish, and preserve our incomparable land. I hope to go on with life and see nature as Cole did. I don’t want to take for granted the inspiration that is available to all of us, all around us, always.
Ciara O’Neill is an English major at Lehman College, where she also studies Early Childhood Education. Her hope is to encourage young students to explore reading and writing in ways that transcend the classroom and that allow students to discover their creative abilities and interests. She spends much of her time writing poetry and travels often, looking for new inspiration everywhere she goes.