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14dautumn07DSC 0401Kaaterskill Falls

Flames Of Autumn, Thomas Cole And The Birth Of The Hudson River School

In October of 1825 a young British immigrant to the United States named Thomas Cole caught a steamboat ride from lower Manhattan and took a trip up the Hudson River stopping to get off at West Point to see Fort Putnam and again at Catskill, New York, where he got off again, and went on a sketching trip high up in the Catskill Mountains. On site he did pencil sketches, but when he got back to his father's apartment on Greenwich Street in New York City, he produced three large oil paintings that almost immediately were put on display in a picture shop window where they were snapped up by leading patrons of the day and in the process, changed American art forever. These three transactions made printed news where the following story appeared in the New York Evening Post on November 22, 1825:

13 COLE T FlsofKThomas Cole (1801-1848), The Falls of the Kaaterskill, Collection: Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT

About a month ago, Mr. Cole, a young man from the interior of Pennsylvania, placed three paintings in the hands of Mr. Colman, a picture dealer in the city, for sale, hoping to obtain twenty dollars apiece for them. There they remained unnoticed by the Macaenases (sic?) who purchased Guido’s, Raphael’s and Titian’s, of the manufacture of every manufacturing town in Europe: &there they might have remained, if an artist, who had himself placed some of his own productions in the hands of Mr. Colman, had not gone to inquire for the proceeds. On casting his eyes upon one of the pictures by Mr. Cole, he exclaimed, “where did these come from!” and continued gazing, almost incapable of understanding the answer. When informed that what he saw was the work of a young man, untutored and unknown, he immediately purchased the painting for twenty five dollars, the price Mr. Colman had prevailed upon the painter to affix to his work, adding, “Mr. Colman, keep the money due to me, and take the balance. If I could sir, I would add to the balance. What I now purchase for 25 dollars I would not part for 25 guineas. I am delighted, and at the same time mortified. This youth has done at once, and without instruction, what I can not do after 50 years of practice.” This honorable testimony to the merits and genius of Mr. Cole was from Col. (John) Trumbull.

Col. Trumbull immediately mentioned his purchase to another artist, and in the highest terms of eulogium. That artist waited at the colonel’s rooms while the picture was sent for, and immediately exclaimed, “This is beyond the expectations you had raised.” After gazing with wonder and delight, he hastened to see the remaining two, purchased one, and left the other only for the lack of money. He carried this in his hand to the rooms of Col. Trumbull, where two other artists of first rank in the city were in waiting. The result was, that the four went immediately to the picture dealers; one of the last mentioned artists bought the remaining landscape; all four left their cards for Mr. Cole, whose modesty had not permitted himself to the artists of the city; and all have expressed but one sentiment of admiration and pleasure, at the talent which is thus brought to light.
These pictures will now be seen with delight by those that visit our Academy, and they will be astonished when they compare them with the works of the first European masters, in the Gallery, to find an American boy, comparatively speaking, for such a truly is a man of twenty two, has equaled those works which have been the boast of Europe and the admiration of the ages. ------ American

21Cole 1825LakewithdeadtreesThomas Cole (1801-1848), Lake with Dead Trees, ?Collection: Oberlin College Art Museum, Oberlin, Ohio

Those first three paintings by Cole purchased by John Trumbull, Asher B. Durand and William Dunlap, were “The Falls of the Kaaterskill,” “Lake with Dead Trees,” and, “A View of Fort Putnam.” In all likelihood the three have never been seen together since those early days as first “The Falls of the Kaaterskill” disappeared and then so too did “A View of Fort Putnam.” The version we know today as “The Falls of the Kaaterskill” was a copy done for Daniel Wadsworth in 1826. Trumbull was the uncle of Wadsworth by marriage, and Wadsworth would go on to become the greatest patron of Cole. “A View of Fort Putnam,” was considered to be lost until being recently rediscovered at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Art in Philadelphia, where it has been properly restored to its current state, a most suitable location as it was at the P.A.F.A. in late 1823 and early 1824 that Cole received his brief formal art training.

07ColeT RofFP 1825Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Ruins of Fort Putnam, 1825, Loaned to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia PA

Cole lived a relatively short life, dying of a heart attack in 1848, but along the way he inspired a generation of American painters to emulate his exploration of the landscape of the Hudson Valley and northeast, particularly best seen in autumn. Their art has gone in and out of fashion too many times to list here, but their images have served to inspire beyond mere decoration as the locations painted in many cases have become either state or national parks. Indeed the National Parks movement came as a result of a disbelieving Congress when they saw the work of another British immigrant, this one named Thomas Moran, in 1872 when he attempted to convey the hidden wonders of a place nobody then knew about called Yellowstone. It worked and Moran’s large painting of Yellowstone not only was bought by Congress, it insured that area of Wyoming would be permanently protected from over development such as logging, ranches or mining.

Yellowstone Canyon thomasMoran minThomas Moran (1837-1926), Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872, Department of the Interior, Washington, DC

Back east the Catskills of Thomas Cole were not afforded such national protections, but as economic decline of the early 20th century struck former fashionable Victorian resorts as the Catskill Mountain House and the nearby Laurel House sited atop Kaaterskill Falls, those hotels failed and their vast real estate holding were taken over by the state in lieu of taxes owed. Today the Catskill Park has “forever wild” legal status and can easily be accessed through NY Route 23A west from Palenville towards Tannersville. All of the locations painted by Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School are ready for those who can attempt a rugged day hike. In 2000 this writer took a PBS camera crew through the area for those who preferred to see the sites from the safety of their living rooms.

As for the paintings by Cole et al, they are prominently on display in museums across the United States, most notably the Wadsworth Atheneum Hartford, CT, the New-York Historical Society, NYC; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

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