By: Timothy Cahill
Sunday, September 19, 2004
“Do you know that I have got a new painting-room?” wrote Thomas Cole to fellow painter Asher B. Durand near the end of 1839. “It answers pretty well … and being removed from the noise and bustle of the house, is really charming.”
Cole’s enthusiasm for his new work space came at a time when the artist was perhaps the most highly regarded American painter of his time. The studio, part of a much larger storage barn, is just steps from the main house at Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill.
As the latest phase of a long-term project to preserve the place where American landscape painting was born, the “Storehouse Studio” has undergone a complete restoration and will open to the public from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 3.
Cedar Grove consists of the painter’s 1815 three-story Federal-style house, 3 1/2 acres of grounds and outbuildings. Cole was the leader of the artistic movement called the Hudson River School. To have his work space intact and returned to its original condition marks a significant milestone in American cultural history.
“In many ways, this is the most important building (on the site),” observes Elizabeth Jacks, executive director of Cedar Grove. “If you start from the premise that the most important thing about Thomas Cole is his painting, then it follows that the most important building is the place that he painted. The house tells the story of his life and how he lived, but the studio tells the story of his work, of how he worked and where he worked.”
Among the masterpieces Cole produced in the 20-by-20-foot space is his four-part painting “The Voyage of Life,” perhaps his best-known work.
The $450,000 restoration began in February. Following Cole’s death in 1848, the studio was used as a storage shed, an antiques shop and finally a studio apartment. Re-creating the studio involved removing 20th-century materials and ripping out a makeshift loft to restore a ceiling nearly 12 feet high. Timbers salvaged from old barns were used to repair rotting infrastructure beams, and antique bricks brought in to rebuild interior masonry walls.
The studio is furnished with Cole’s materials, including his easels, a paint box and brushes, plaster casts and reference books. Period materials like those the artist was known to have used, including a camera obscura and magic lantern (an early slide projector), are also included.
“It adds a whole new dimension to understanding the man,” says Jacks of the studio. “You can get a lot of information from what we have. Cole was not a wealthy man — this was a space in a barn.
“The paintings he was working on were often more than 6 feet wide, he had to take his canvases off the stretchers to get them through the door,” Jacks adds. “And you can imagine what it was like in the winter. There’s a fireplace at one end, but Hudson Valley winters get cold. For me, I get a sense of his perseverance.”
All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2005, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.