Found Underground


By: Bonnie Langston, Freeman staff


The next Sunday salon at the Catskill home of Thomas Cole, founder of the famed 19th-century Hudson River School of painting, will be led by a man who learned of the artist a relatively short time ago and in a rather unusual venue – a New York City subway stop.

The presenter is Manhattan’s David Barnes, and the image he saw a decade ago on a poster in the subway was of Cole’s “The Picnic,” then part of a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. When Barnes saw the show, its impact changed his life.

“I can’t even tell you how powerful that was, he said in a telephone interview from his office at J.P. Morgan Investments in Brooklyn.

“I said, ‘That’s it. I want to learn everything there is to know about this guy.”

Barnes set out to do that, and as he rattles off dates of paintings, details of exhibits, information about the style and influence of the Hudson River School and all kinds of other minutia, one suspects he has either arrived or at least come very close to his goal. Barnes’ interest in Cole led him to become a member of Cedar Grove’s board of advisors as well as a docent at the New-York Historical Society. He led the first salon of the year at Cole’s home earlier this month, talking about the painter’s series masterpieces “The Course of Empire” – in the collection of the above-mentioned historical society – and “The Voyage of Life,” both created at the height of Cole’s career.

In the next salon, Feb. 13, Barnes will explore Cole’s influence on other artists by way of a slide lecture.

The program has been increased to two sessions, 2 and 3:30 p.m., because of the standing-room-only crowd at this year’s initial event.

“For a winter Sunday, it turned out to be fantastic,” said Barry Hencks, a spokesperson and volunteer at Cedar Grove. Hencks said he counted nearly 45 vehicles in the parking lot, making the recent presentation at the salon – in its second year – the largest off-season event at the historical site.

That is a major change for the 1815 Federal brick home that had been allowed to decay for two decades, leaving it with a crumbling porch, caved-in roof, peeling paint and a flooded basement.

Restoration was far enough along in the spring of 2001 for the home’s first major opening, in celebration of the bicentennial of Cole’s birth.

A year ago, Elizabeth Jacks came on as director, and a search is underway for the site’s first educational director. In addition, Cole’s renovated “Old Studio” opened to the public fewer than four months ago.

Barnes, distraught by the home’s earlier disrepair, joined forces more than four years ago with others to further aid its rebirth. Like second-generation Hudson River School artist Jasper Cropsey, who visited Cole’s home in 1850, two years after the painter’s death, Barnes has found that Cole’s essence remains.

“Artists talked about this feeling for years after he died,” Barnes said. “His spirit just pervades.”

It certainly touched others in the Hudson River School. Frederic Edwin Church, whose home Olana is a short distance from Hudson, was most influenced by Cole, Barnes said.

“He was Cole’s first and most prominent student. Church was 18 years old, a young kid,” he said. “He really became the rock star of his day. For his ‘Heart of the Andes,’ people lined up around the block to see it (for 25 cents each at Lyrique Hall in New York City).”

At least 12,000 visitors eventually viewed the mammoth work – 66 1/8 by 119 1/4 inches – which they viewed with theater glasses. Visitors to the salon in February will see a slide image of the painting now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Like Cole, the younger man portrayed both geological and botanical forms in exacting detail, Barnes said. But unlike his mentor Church tended to represent an entire series in one painting, a “visual feast” known for its profusion of detail and range of atmosphere.

Also unlike Cole, Church lived in an era in which landscapes were gaining more respect. For instance, Barnes said in the early 1840s, a few years before Cole’s death, 1 out of 10 works exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York City were landscapes. A decade later, landscapes dominated, he said.

That does not mean Cole’s work went unappreciated. He made a living from his paintings. And works like “The Voyage of Life” gained much attention.

“Artists loved it. People responded to it,” Barnes said.

But the work was exhibited only a few times. For one thing, there was little opportunity to show art during Cole’s lifetime.

The first permanent art gallery in the United States, The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., opened in 1844, four years before Cole’s death. Cole’s “Course of the Empire,” was shown there, and Barnes said today the museum has one of the best collections of Hudson River School paintings.

He said, too, that he is grateful for that fateful day when he glimpsed an image of Cole’s work at a New York City subway station. And he enjoys telling visitors to Cedar Grove all about it.

“I came to love Cole probably the way that he would have wanted – through his art,” he said.


©Daily Freeman 2005 Originally found at

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