A Love of the Land
Thomas Cole’s Refrain: The Paintings of Catskill Creek chronicles the artist’s nearly two-decade infatuation with the famed New York landscape
Thomas Cole’s Refrain:the Paintings of Catskill Creek chronicles the artist’s nearly two-decade infatuation with the famed Newyork landscape
Thomas Cole’s arrival in Catskill, New York, was perhaps the most pivotal moment in the young artist’s life. Only 24 years old, the English-born Cole likely did not know it at the time, but the rural town would become his life’s work and solidify his name within American art history as the founder of the Hudson River School.as the story goes, in the autumn of 1825, Cole took a steamship up the Hudson River with one of the stops being the Catskill landing. He hiked into the Catskill Mountains and for the first time sketched his muse. On his return to Newyork City, he turned the sketches into paintings that are thought to be the first of the mountainous area that was also chronicled in Washington Irving’s novel Rip Van Winkle in 1819.
Cole soon headed back to Catskill and began further exploring the mountains and its nearby areas.around 1827 he discovered Catskill Creek, a location within the mountains that had the waterway and high peaks all around. For 18 years, Cole returned to this corner of the world—some could argue his corner of the world—and found continual inspiration for his art.
This particular landscape within Cole’s oeuvre struck a chord for H. Daniel Peck, John Guy Vassar Jr. Professor Emeritus of English atvassar College.about three years ago, Peck completed the manuscript for his book Thomas Cole’s Refrain:the Paintings of Catskill Creek and in 2019 it was published by Three Hills, an imprint of Cornell University Press. Peck argues that, although they were created over the span of nearly two decades, Cole’s Catskill Creek paintings can be seen as a series similar to his major allegorical works, such as the The Voyage of Life. After the manuscript was first finished, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site caught wind of Peck’s project and asked him to curate an exhibition based on these paintings.
The show, which shares the same name as Peck’s book, opened May 4 and will hang through November 3. Included are 12 original oil paintings by the artist, 10 Catskill works and two landscapes highlighting Cole’s dynamic technique and style. Many of the pieces are curated from other institutions and private collections.
The earliest Catskill Creek painting in the exhibition is the second one Cole painted of the landscape, View Near Catskill. “the very first work of Catskill Creek he completed in 1827 is a beautiful springtime or summer scene, but [this next one] he paints an autumnal scene, and it’s a very similar landscape,” says Peck. “he goes off on his first extended European tour from 1829 to 1832, and remarkably when he comes back he starts painting Catskill creek again.”
Cole completed around four more works of the region during the next decade, before heading back to Europe again in the early 1840s. this time while he was in Europe, Cole could not shake the American landscape that had captivated him. “i figured out he painted one [of his Catskill works] in Rome, Italy,” says Peck. “I discovered this because I discovered the sketch for the painting was dated Rome 1842.” The work, Settler’s Home in the Catskills, is unique because rather than being a specific rendering of the place it is from Cole’s memory. “I had a cartographer for the book project and he was able to locate vantage points, but when it came to this one he couldn’t find exactly where Cole was standing,” says Peck. “it had all the elements, all the same elements, but the cartographer threw up his hands with
this one. So, it’s an imagined viewpoint and very fanciful in a way, and it goes to show Cole’s imagination at work and his development of his beautiful landscape.” Back in the U.S., Cole again returned to the waterway and completed several more works including his final image, Catskill Creek, New York, three years before his death.along with Cole’s paintings, the exhibition will display three pieces of Catskill Creek by Asher B. Durand, Frederic Edwin Church and Charles Herbert Moore, highlighting the continuing legacy of the artist and the place.
Thomas Cole (1801-1848), View Near Catskill, 1828-29. Oil on wood panel, 24¼ x 33¾ in. Private collection.
Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Catskill Creek, New York, 1845. Oil on canvas, 26½ x 36 in. New-york Historical Society, The Robert L. Stuart Collection, gift of his widow Mrs. Mary Stuart, S-157.
Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Settler’s Home in the Catskills, 1842. Oil on canvas, 2215/16 x 28½ in. Private collection.
Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), Catskill Mountains, 1830. Oil on canvas, 13¾ x 18 in. Albany Institute of History and Art, gift of Miss Jane E. Rosell, 1987.20.2.
Thomas Cole (1801-1848), North Mountain and Catskill Creek, 1838. Oil on canvas, 267/16 x 367/16 in. Yale University Art Gallery, gift of Anne Osborn Prentice, 1981.56.