Historic Restoration At Thomas Cole Site; “Sanford R. Gifford in the Catskills” Opens Season

Apr 28, 2017

The Thomas Cole Historic Site in Catskill is showing off its renovations this week. WAMC's Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas got a tour of the main home Thursday, experiencing both an "immersive installation" and the "Sanford R. Gifford in the Catskills" exhibit...

Thomas Cole is regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School, America's first major art movement that took the mid-19th century by storm.

"First we'll go here into the main house, which was originally built in 1815," said Betsy Jacks, the Executive Director of the Thomas Cole Site, led us on a breathtaking tour of the historic grounds at 218 Spring Street, beginning with the main house:  the first floor transformed to mimic Cole’s original design.

"When Thomas Cole moved into the house 21 years later, he completely redecorated. I was amazed at the colors that Thomas Cole chose, the colors, the patterns, the whole aesthetic is a strong one, and you can tell that an artist with a strong vision was at work."

Thomas Cole's desk in the Old Studio
Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

Jacks explains there were no pictures of the way Cole's home and studio looked in his time, which preceded photography, so a forensic decorator was brought in who was able to assist in restoring the historic decor.

"We wanted to not have to rope it off with velvet ropes and have everyone stand in a corner and just look at it. We wanted people to be able to enter the spaces, and participate in the story. So we've created something a little different. We've introduced technology to help tell the story."

Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

The immersive multimedia installation includes slideshows projected on simulated canvases adorning the walls. Speakers boom the voice of Thomas Cole, portrayed by British actor Jamie Bell.  "The copper-hearted barbarians are cutting all the trees down in the beautiful valley on which I have looked often..."

Jacks pointed out "The unifying theme is that we are trying to use Thomas Cole's own words and his own paintings to tell the stories, so that's what you'll hear and see throughout — our words taken from his own letters, and his own paintings, and they tell the story, and then we let the visitor interpret it."

Kevin Avery's book "Sanford R. Gifford in the Catskills" is available at the Thomas Cole Site.
Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

We were the first in almost 200 years to see Cole's newly uncovered interior designs: wall borders, examples of the earliest-known interior decorative painting by an American artist.

The tour went on to visit the 1839 Old Studio and the reconstructed state-of-the-art climate-controlled 1846 New Studio, where the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Senior Research Scholar Kevin Avery is curating the exhibition "Sanford R. Gifford in the Catskills." Gifford followed Cole, whom Avery credits with stimulating Gifford’s interest in landscape painting.    "While we don't have documentation of him actually meeting Cole, the likelihood of them having crossed paths, especially when Gifford made his decision to become a landscape painter, the likelihood that they crossed paths in New York City seems great. The important thing, however, is what Gifford himself testified in 1874, six years before he died. And that was, his ventures, his forays into the Catskill Mountains on sketching tours, also in the Berkshires, in combination with what he called his admiration of the works of Thomas Cole, was what seemed to fasten him on his path."

The centerpiece of the Gifford exhibition is his must-see 1861 painting "Twilight in the Catskills."  The then-endangered Catskill landscapes, preserved in paintings, are still in danger today. Outside the New Studio, upon conclusion of the tour, a cold spring wind kicked up as Jacks told me the artistic movement spearheaded by Cole impacts us today.   "His favorite view, from the porch of this main house here, was changing dramatically, right in front of his eyes, as the railroads came through, and as the forests were clear-cut for industry. And he was so alarmed and his words resonate today. We face the same challenges and we are battling the same battles."

Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

(Regular entry hours begin  Tuesday, May 2nd, with the exhibition open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. The Thomas Cole National Historic Site is located at 218 Spring Street in Catskill. For more info, call 518.943.7465 or visit www.thomascole.org.) Visitors will be treated to guided tours, exhibitions, and printed publications, including a map that pinpoints nearby views Cole painted.

The experience left me with the feeling that Thomas Cole is still there — in the next room or perhaps across the path in one of the studios.