Cole and Church houses make for interesting, inspiring day
By Kevin E. Foley
The Hudson River School of painting is a big part of the history and perception of the Hudson Valley. In the early 19th century, when much of the country still seemed vast, dangerous and unknowable, the vision expressed on these generally large canvases offered viewers a sense of the grandeur, romance, and harmony with nature Hudson communities offered inhabitants. Even if some now consider the style overstated, grandiose, naive, there is no denying its charm and force in depicting some of the very aspects of natural beauty we celebrate in the Highlands today. Thomas Cole and Frederic Church are the two giant names of the Hudson School. Cole is generally regarded as the founder and principal inspiration as both practitioner and teacher. Church, an acolyte of Cole, became the most successful of the original Hudson River School painters, certainly when judged by commercial success.
An interesting and fun daytrip about an hour north is a visit to both artists’ homes, spending time understanding their shared artistic vision and their intertwined, but different biographies. The advice here is go to Cole’s home first on the other side of the Hudson in Catskill, N.Y. You can take the Thruway or the other routes north (Route 9, the Taconic). Cole House is a national historic site and has recently been refurbished. Relatively modest in size and land, the house provides a flavor for the period and the personality of the founder one of America’s great painting traditions. While he was not particularly successful in his lifetime, a Cole is a valuable possession today, which explains why you will not find much of his work here. But the docents are knowledgeable and the restored fixtures and room arrangements help guide one’s thinking about the origins of the painting style. For more on a Cole House visit: thomascole.org.
For those who like a good walk, tours leave the Cole House for the nearby Catskills to behold some of the sites that inspired Cole and others to paint their landscapes. Maps also offer self-guided tours of these and even more natural area sites. The nearby Village of Catskill can seem extra quiet on weekends, but has a couple of places for lunch and you wouldn’t want to miss the famous cats perched next to the parking meters.
Be sure to save time and watch the clock for your reserved tour time of the much more popular Olana, conveniently located a short drive away across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. Church became rich as a favorite of the New York City elite and built his Persian style mansion on a hilltop overlooking a wide swath of the Hudson Valley, including the home of his mentor, Cole. Just walking the landscaped 250-acres and taking in some of breathless scenery makes one grateful for the preservation of the site for public use. Olana is a state government run operation in cooperation with a private non-profit corporation. The house is larger and more interesting than Cole’s bespeaking a more affluent, well-traveled lifestyle. Here again you will find more of other people’s art. Curators of both homes hold special exhibits of work inspired by the artists or that inspired them. For more information on Olana: olana.org.
After visiting Olana leave time for a walk around the galleries of Hudson, N.Y. and be sure to consider one of the several interesting restaurants in the town. Hudson also usually has some interesting entertainment choices depending on the time of year.
Photos by K.E. Foley