Cedar Grove: The Home of Thomas Cole

History of Cedar Grove

by Robert M. Toole, excepted from “Quiet Harbor” Hudson River Valley Review (Marist, Vol.27, No.1, Autumn 2010)

Thomas Cole came to the village of Catskill for the first time in 1825 on a sketching trip. He returned in subsequent years, eventually boarding at Cedar Grove, a farm owned by the local merchant, John A. Thomson. Initially, Cole was at Cedar Grove in the summers only, but in 1836 he made it his permanent home when he married one of Mr. Thomson’s nieces, Maria Bartow.

From the first, Cedar Grove and the Catskill region nurtured Thomas Cole’s artistry. In his “Essay on American Scenery” (1835), Cole said the local landscape had “varied, undulating, and exceedingly beautiful outlines – [the Catskills] heave from the valley of the Hudson like the subsiding billows of the ocean after a storm.” In this setting, Thomas Cole created many of the Hudson River School masterpieces that assured his fame.

O Cedar Grove! when’er I think to part
From thine all peaceful shades my aching heart
Is like to his who leaves some blessed shore

A weeping exile ne’er to see it more.

-Thomas Cole, 1834

The Cedar Grove property has an ancient history that began with a 1684 land grant, followed by a land subdivision in 1773. The subdivision lines largely determined Cedar Grove’s configuration. Starting small, the Thomson family developed adjoining lots beginning in 1797. In 1815, they built the Federal-style main house that remains today, and quickly compiled a substantial farm property of about 110 acres. Despite fronting on the Hudson River , the Cedar Grove house and infrastructure were built along a local turnpike road – today’s Spring Street – that crossed through the western portion of the property, where the land sloped away from the river. As such, Cedar Grove has always enjoyed an orientation towards the western prospect of the Catskill Mountains , appropriate as this was the scene of Thomas Cole’s inspiration. In addition to the main house, Cedar Grove included a cluster of outbuildings. Several of these are significant for their use as studios during distinct periods of Thomas Cole’s career. Earliest was a farmhouse, often called the cottage, used until 1839 when a separate store-house/studio was built. In 1846, Cole designed a free standing studio – called the new studio – south of the house. The new studio was demolished in modern times, but the building has now been reconstructed on its original footprint.

John A. Thomson died in the summer of 1846 and Thomas Cole wrote of “new duties and cares,” lamenting the loss of Cedar Grove’s “master’s hand.” Only two years later, early in 1848, Cole also died. He was buried at Cedar Grove in the Thomson family vault overlooking his beloved Catskills. Of the spot, Cole had mused:

To be sepulchered here – to rest upon

The spot of earth that living I have loved

Where yon far mountains steep, would constant look

Upon the grave of one who lov’d to gaze on them.

After Thomas Cole’s death, his wife and children remained at Cedar Grove. In the late 1850s, Thomas Cole’s oldest son, Theodore Cole, became active in managing the farm, a role he continued into the 20 th century. In these decades there were few alterations to the house grounds or farm. Then, beginning in 1901, numerous subdivisions reduced the estate lands. In the 1930s the construction of the Rip Van Winkle bridge approach cut diagonally through historic Cedar Grove, obliterating what was left of its farmland.

Thomas Cole’s grandchildren struggled to preserve his legacy at Cedar Grove, and eventually, in 1979, the property was sold out of family ownership. In the late 1980s, the National Park Service recognized the significance of Thomas Cole and his life at Catskill, status formalized in 1999 when Cedar Grove was declared a National Historic Site. But in the 1980s and 90s funds to acquire the site were not forthcoming until the Greene County Historical Society purchased the property in 1998. Restoration of the main house followed and in 2001, Thomas Cole’s 200 th birthday, Cedar Grove opened to the public.

Today, the picturesque residential grounds reflect Thomas Cole’s period, when the landscape was described by fellow artist, Jasper Cropsey, as “not to give off an atmosphere of luxury and wealth.” Importantly, the panoramic views to the Catskill Mountains and its great “Wall of Manitou,” experienced daily by Cole, can still be enjoyed. The entry driveway coming from Spring Street can still be traced, and the adjacent flower garden blooms each summer with renewed care. Close by is the Federal-style privy, built to complement the house, and Thomas Cole’s studio at the old store-house. These outbuildings have now been fully restored. Beyond is the grove of old trees, the woodlot mentioned in Thomas Cole’s writings. A stand of Cedar trees in the grove probably inspired the name Cedar Grove, and it is possible that Cole himself coined the term before 1830.

With its scenic attributes and authentic rural amenities, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site is a living memorial to the artistry of its famous resident and the world of romanticism in the Hudson River Valley.

rootCedar Grove: The Home of Thomas Cole

Biography of Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole was born in 1801 at Bolton, Lancashire in Northwestern England and emigrated with his family to the United States in 1818. During the early years Cole lived for short periods in Philadelphia, Ohio, and Pittsburgh where he worked as an itinerant portrait artist. Although primarily self-taught, Cole worked with members of the Philadelphia Academy, and his canvases were included in the Academy’s exhibitions.

In 1825, Cole discovered the haunting beauty of the Catskill wilderness. His exhibition of small paintings of Catskill landscapes came to the attention of prominent figures on the New York City art scene including Asher B. Durand, who became a life-long friend, and his fame spread. While he was still in his twenties, Cole was made a fellow of the National Academy.

In 1829-1831, Cole returned to Britain for study, to attend to family business and to travel to France and Italy. These years were among the most happy and productive of his life. Cole met a large number of wealthy Americans traveling abroad and received numerous commissions from them, increasing his reputation and stature.

Cole returned to New York City in November of 1832 and mounted an exhibition of his European paintings, which aroused considerable public interest. Shortly thereafter, Cole first established his rural studio in Catskill, New York, when he rented a small outbuilding at Cedar Grove, now the Thomas Cole National Historic Site.

It was during this period that Cole began his relationship with Luman Reed. A native of Coxsackie, New York, Reed was a successful local merchant who had moved to New York City and opened a private art gallery there. He became Cole’s patron, and for Reed, Cole produced one of his best-known and popular series of paintings, known as “The Course of Empire.”

During the winter of 1835-1836, Cole stayed in Catskill working on “The Course of Empire.” During this period Cole began to express strong views concerning the impact of industrial development and its negative consequences for the wild beauty of the Catskills landscapes that were the source of inspiration for his work. The growth of the railroad by “copper-hearted barbarians” was of particular concern. In 1836, both Cole’s father and his patron Luman Reed died, but there was happiness in that year as well.

On November 22, 1836, Thomas Cole and Maria Bartow were married at Cedar Grove, which became Cole’s home. The couple was given a suite of rooms on the second floor of the house. Many of the great painters and literary figures of the day began to visit the Coles at their Catskill home. Among the calling cards in the Cole papers of the Albany Institute of History and Art is that of James Fenimore Cooper. On January 1, 1838, the Cole’s first child, Theodore Alexander Cole was born.

In March of 1839, Cole agreed to produce four paintings to be known as “The Voyage of Life” for Samuel Ward, a wealthy banker and philanthropist. The price agreed upon was $5000. Ward would die in November of that year without seeing his commission completed in December of 1840.

On August 7, 1841, Cole traveled to Europe once more, visiting relatives in England. Again, he visited France and Italy and journeyed to Switzerland. Cole was a welcome and popular guest. He painted a second “Voyage of Life” while in Italy and shipped the series to New York. Cole returned from his second European tour on the steamship “Great Western” in July of 1842.

After his return from Europe, Cole made the decision to receive baptism, confirmation and communion in the Episcopal Church and became a member of Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Catskill. Cole later designed a new church building for Saint Luke’s and for his friend and eventual biographer, the Reverend Louis L. Noble, the Church Rector.

By February of 1843, Thomas Cole was realizing that he had become a public figure and commented on this in his letters. Cole was also having financial troubles. Throughout the subsequent years, he continued to worry about selling his paintings. During this time, a number of Cole letters and poems were published in New York papers and magazines.

In May of 1844 Cole agreed to accept Frederic E. Church as a student in his studio. Church’s father agreed to pay $300 per year for young affluent Church’s instruction. This agreement lasted until June, 1846. Room and board was three dollars a week. Cole took on a second student, Benjamin McConkey, on the same terms.

In February 1846, Cole began another series of paintings to be called “The Cross and the World.” Cole’s second studio, some distance from the main house, was built during this period and was used by the artist from this time on. Cole was very proud of this building, which came to be known as the“New Studio”, and loved to show it off to visitors.

On February 6, 1848, the Cole family attended a morning service at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Catskill. After lunch, Cole complained of lassitude and by midnight his condition worsened and the doctor was summoned. An attack of pleurisy and congestion of his lungs followed. Thomas Cole died in the Main House at Cedar Grove at 8 pm on Friday, February 11th, 1848. The funeral was held at Saint Luke’s Church and burial was in the family vault at Cedar Grove on February 15th. Due to extremely cold weather, however, very few friends could attend these last rites. Cole’s body was later moved to the Thomson Street Cemetery.



Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), Portrait of Thomas Cole, 1838. Oil on Canvas, 30 1/4 x 25 in. Framed: 36 1/2 x 31 1/2 in. Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA, Gift of Zenas Crane, 1917.

rootBiography of Thomas Cole

Old Studio

The Old Studio is a barn-like building where Thomas Cole created many of his most iconic and celebrated paintings. The building was restored in 2004 and is now furnished with his original easels and other art-making equipment and tools.

Immediately after his marriage in 1836, Thomas Cole worked in the Main House itself. But in 1839, Cole was able to move to the Old Studio, a larger and more private space, thanks to John Thomson. The new location was a separate building on Cedar Grove’s grounds, as Cole explained in a letter to Asher B. Durand in December of 1839:

“Do you know that I have got into a new painting Room? Mr. Thomson has lately erected a sort of Store-house + has let me have part of it for a temporary painting room [;] it answers pretty well [;] is somewhat larger than my old one + being removed from the noise + bustle of the house is really charming…”

Although Cole considered this a temporary arrangement, he painted many of his most important works in this storehouse studio, including the Voyage of Life for his patron Samuel Ward, as the ceiling was high enough to accommodate large canvasses. A fireplace permitted Cole to work in any season, and Cole himself paid for the addition of a large skylight-like window to admit northern light, the preferred light for painting. Cole welcomed visits from his family to the studio, and the Cole children came and went while their father was working. The Old Studio also afforded the space for grinding pigments into paint, constructing stretchers, stretching canvasses, and fitting pictures into frames. Painting at this time involved a lot of hard physical labor—active, smelly, and frequently messy.

Cole painted in the Old Studio for seven years until December 1846. In his Christmas journal entry for that year, Cole recorded, “I am now sitting in my New Studio which is about completed though the walls are not yet dry.” Learn more about the New Studio here.

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Main House

The Main House is a three-story, Federal structure of painted brick that was built in 1815 by the brothers Thomas and John Thomson.  In 1836, Cole married John Thomson’s niece, Maria Bartow, who was living in the Main House with her uncle along with her sisters. After Thomas and Maria were married, the Main House became Cole’s permanent home. During Cole’s lifetime the household included John Thomson, Maria’s three unmarried sisters, three of the Coles’ children, Theodore, Mary, and Emily, and several hired servants. In the 1830s and 40s, Thomsons, Bartows, Coles, and their servants occupied every inch of the main house, including its attic and basement, and space was tight. There were between 11 and 14 people living in the home during this time.

Before the 1850s, American rooms seldom had fixed single uses as they do today. Like other significant rooms in the house, the entry hall had many purposes. In addition to providing a transition between outside and inside, the hall served as the receiving parlor for guests, a gathering place, a dining room, a children’s playroom, and a work area, especially in hot weather when the door could be left open to let in a breeze. Circular vents or grates in the second-floor bedrooms hint that a coal stove in the entry hall powered an innovative central heating system intended to heat bedrooms and the east parlor in the winter. The Thomson-Cole household used coal very early, as evidenced by records showing the purchase of coal stoves by John Thomson in the 1830s.

The west parlor, or sitting room, always had opulent appointments right from the beginning when furnishings were first being acquired for the house in 1821. In addition to a pianoforte worth the great sum of $250, the room contained a set of rush-bottomed chairs with a settee—together worth $42—a tea table, a writing table, a valuable carpet, an elegant looking-glass valued at $45, and the latest heating technology, which was a pyramid stove that probably burned wood. Despite this stove, however, the family continued to complain of cold in their letters and diaries throughout the 1830s and 40s. Around the time of the Coles’ 1836 marriage, the room was modified and updated to reflect the new Greek Revival style then in vogue.

The east parlor’s position and size make it the most likely location for family meals, although it was called the “East Parlor,” not the dining room. But in the first half of the nineteenth century, it would have been uncommon to have a designated eating room. Lightweight, highly mobile dining furniture moved around as required; and families used the room in which they ate for many other activities, including family prayers, children’s lessons, sewing, and socializing with friends. Thus, eating in the “East Parlor” rather than in the “dining room” followed period custom.

Upstairs, the Cole sitting room, the children’s bedroom, and Thomas and Maria’s bedroom constituted the Cole family apartment. The sitting room particularly provided the Coles with a private space, separate from the extended family, in which to create and maintain a married life together. Over the years, as the Cole family grew, there is a sense that the room was a refuge for the artist as well as for his wife. In the winter, the Coles drew together around their stove for such activities as reading aloud, sewing, and making quilts.

The small space off the Cole sitting room is believed to be the children’s bedroom. By 1846, Theodore, Mary, and Emily were old enough to share a room, which was common practice at the time. In an era of limited space, heat, and privacy, adults as well as children frequently shared bedrooms and beds. In fact, all three children may have slept in the same bed, or one child may have occupied a cot in the same room.

In the north corner of the crowded house, Thomas and Maria enjoyed the luxury of a small private bedroom. This room’s proximity to the Cole’s sitting room and to the children’s bedroom had obvious advantages. The Cole’s bedroom also offered ready access to the stairway and, via a triple-hung window, to the second floor porch. Perhaps befitting their new status as a married couple, the Coles slept in the most expensive bed in the house, one of two curtained beds owned by John Thomson. The remaining bedroom on the second floor was occupied by Maria Cole’s three unmarried sisters: Emily, Harriet and Francis.

Immediately after his marriage to Maria in 1836, Thomas Cole apparently worked in the main house itself. But in 1839, Cole was able to move to a larger and more private space in the Old Studio.

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Finishing Touches

November 25, 2015At last the beautiful, hand-made, bright green shutters have arrived. The architect John Mesick designed them to be exactly like the originals, with smaller louvers on the top half of each shutter and larger louvers on the bottom half. The color was taken from two sources: one is a pencil drawing by Frederic Church from 1848 in which he indicates the colors in his hand-written notes on the drawing. The second is from a recently discovered painting of the building by Charles Herbert Moore, which will be on view inside the New Studio as part of the 2016 exhibition that will open on May 1, 2016.

Betsy JacksFinishing Touches

Preview for Supporters Coming Up

On Saturday September 19th we will open the doors of the New Studio for the first time for a special preview for everyone who has donated to the campaign. This is a truly thrilling moment for all of us. Please donate now and join this incredible celebration. Cocktails will begin at 5 pm, followed by remarks by the building’s renowned architect John I Mesick at 5:30. The event is free for anyone who has donated to the campaign at any level. Become a part of this historic moment.

Betsy JacksPreview for Supporters Coming Up

Thomas Cole’s New Studio

On May 1, 2016, the reconstruction of Thomas Cole’s New Studio officially opened to the public. Originally built in 1846 according to Thomas Cole’s own design, the building stood about 75 yards from Cole’s home in Catskill for 125 years. Tragically, it was torn down in 1973 after falling into disrepair. Now, after many years of research and a successful capital campaign, the building has been reconstructed and is open to visitors. Visit Reconstructing Thomas Cole’s New Studio for a behind-the-scenes look into the process.

The interior of the New Studio features a state-of-the-art exhibition space for displaying changing exhibitions, and its open floor plan provides a flexible space for lectures and educational programing. The building enables the Thomas Cole National Historic Site to effectively serve as a catalyst for the burgeoning national and international interest in 19th century American landscape painting, an outstanding destination for visitors to and residents of the Hudson Valley, and a resource and inspiration for future generations of scholars, collectors and artists.

Jasper Cropsey, Thomas Cole's Studio, Catskill, New York, 1850. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Jasper Cropsey, Thomas Cole’s Studio, Catskill, New York, 1850. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

An Inspiration for Generations

After Cole’s death, his widow Maria, her three unmarried sisters and the Cole children – Theodore, Mary, Emily, and Thomas II – remained at the Cole property, known as Cedar Grove.  For decades little changed at the property, which was maintained consistently by the family into the twentieth century, as one reporter in 1871 described it, “like a shrine.”  After Cole’s passing, artists Frederic Church and Jasper Cropsey sketched Cedar Grove, including glimpses of the “new studio,” the only such images that survive before photographs from the turn of the century.   After his visit, Cropsey wrote this moving description of the space:

After breakfast we were invited to the studio. It is a new building about 1000 yards from the house, large and commodious, with a neat little porch and a wide open hall before entering the painting department. It is built in the modern florid style. We Entered; it seemed as if Mr. Cole would be in in a few minutes for every thing remains as when he last left painting. The picture he last painted on yet stands on the Easel, The brushes he painted with that last day are there; his paint table looks as when he was there – There too is the sketches upon the floor, and standing by the Easel as he left them – There are his books, his writing table, portfolios, and in short I felt like asking, “when will Mr. C be in,” Though the man has departed, yet he has left a spell behind him that is not broken, as you may sit there upon the sofa, and look upon his works, we will feel more than ever the devotion, genius and spirit of the man. Every thing breaths so much candor of will, truth of purpose, and love of the refined and beautiful, that we feel a kind of reverence there, we instinctively feel like taking off our hats, when we enter although He is not there.

A Comprehensive Plan

The Trustees and staff of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site completed a new strategic plan in 2010 focusing on transforming Thomas Cole’s home and studios into a leading center for education and scholarship about the artist and his influence on America’s cultural landscape. These goals will be achieved with dynamic and relevant programming, supported by an expanding permanent collection and well maintained physical facilities.

The New Studio is part of the overall site-wide plan to prepare the organization for a strong and sustainable future. Many pieces of the plan have already been implemented – including a site-wide landscape restoration, upgrades to parking and paths, reconstruction of the historic stone wall and fence along Spring Street, and relocating staff offices out of the 1815 Main House and into a different building on the property.  The reconstruction of the New Studio will provide the Thomas Cole National Historic Site with many of the remaining key pieces of the plan: an interior program space that serves as a museum-quality gallery for special exhibitions and a lecture hall for a variety of programs and events. It will serve all ages and segments of the community – students and teachers, families, scholars, area businesses and visitors from across the country. Most importantly, the New Studio project will ensure that present and future generations can learn about the profound impact of Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School.

Support provided by Market NY through I LOVE NY/ New York State’s Division of Tourism as a part of the Regional Economic Development Council awards.

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The New Studio Hits The New York Times

The lovely reporter, Eve Kahn, visited us a few weeks ago and just fell in love with the New Studio. As luck would have it, the exterior scaffolding had just been taken down, and the exterior painting just completed, revealing the beautiful little building in its full glory at last. She exclaimed, “It combines grandeur with adorableness!”, which I had to agree with. Here is her wonderful article that appeared in print today:


Betsy JacksThe New Studio Hits The New York Times

Siding, trim!

The construction crew of Dimensions North continued work through the weekend to get up the siding and trim along the roofline. Every day the building looks more and more like the photograph.  The 2015 photo is taken from the south-east corner, while the 1900 photo is taken from the north-west.



Betsy JacksSiding, trim!

The Windows Are In

This is the view of Thomas Cole’s house from the brand-new window on the north side.

Betsy JacksThe Windows Are In