Inside the artist’s studio: Cole’s work space being restored


By Jonathan Ment, Freeman staff


AN OLD barn behind the Thomas Cole house on Spring Street in Catskill has been an antiques shop, an apartment house and, yes, a residence for animals.

But before all that, half the structure served as a storehouse and an art studio for Cole, the founder of the 19th-century art movement known as the Hudson River School.

The studio, built in 1839 and believed to be the first purposely constructed artist’s studio in America, will reopen Oct. 3. In the modest wood-and-brick structure, Cole painted his most widely distributed series, “The Voyage of Life” – a series of four paintings, each measuring more than 4 by 6 feet.

Grants totaling nearly $500,000 from the preservation group Save America’s Treasures; the Catskill-Olana Scenic Mitigation Fund, funded by Athens Generating; and Benjamin Moore & Co. will, by that time, have restored the studio to the way it looked in the 1840s.

BETSY Jacks, director of Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, said work on the property is overseen by the National Park Service, which has done extensive research to determine what the site was like originally. The property is owned by the Greene County Historical Society.

“As we opened a wall, we found an original shutter,” Jacks said.

Finds like that, numerous paintings created in the studio and early photographs of the property helped direct the restoration, which includes all period materials. “If it’s not from the 1830s or 1840s, it has to go,” Jacks said. “(But) we had a painting, from the 1860s, that is so detailed we can identify the flowers. We are in the process of restoring or replanting the original flowers.”

AND THROUGH scientific analysis of soils and rocks, the precise locations of the original gardens’ on the grounds were identified.

“In contrast to Olana (almost across the Hudson River in Columbia County), this was a working farm,” Jacks said. “Olana was a park. Here, they had chickens running around.”

Olana is the Persian-style mansion and studio built by Frederic Church, a Hudson River School painter from later in the 19th century who was a student of Cole’s.

“In the early days, American art wasn’t popular,” Jacks said. “Cole was a pioneer.”

WHEN THE barn at the Cole house was being built, Cole sought to include a 19-by-20-foot space in which to work. He used what now is known as the Storehouse Studio for seven years before building a more elaborate Italianate-styled studio that no longer stands. (It was demolished in the 1920s.)

“The loss of historic buildings really cuts deep,” Jacks said. The barn almost fell, too, she said, because “it was in such bad shape.”

“We’re really just lucky that it came down to us,” she said. AS AN architect, Cole designed that second studio, a church in Catskill that since has been replaced, a privy that still stands at Cedar Grove and a home for his family that never was built because his main patron died.

“He never became a wealthy man,” Jacks said.

THE COLE house, on property that belonged to John Alexander Thomson, the uncle of Cole’s wife, Maria Bartow, is now a museum. Some of the family’s possessions, auctioned on the front lawn in the 1960s, have been returned, including Cole’s hat and box and the family china. Other displays include period items like those that Cole and his wife may have owned.

A collection of paintings previously spread throughout the house has been brought together in the North Gallery. On one canvas, a massive honey locust tree standing several feet from the main entrance can be seen in its younger days in an 1868 painting by Charles Herbert Moore.

Against the opposite wall is a display case filled with Cole’s rock collection, a sketch book, and a slab of stone found in the storehouse bearing a drawing authenticated to be the work of the artist.

“It was a doorstop, found here in the late 1990s,” Jacks said. It was holding open a door in the storehouse, where a tenant had lived until then.

RENOVATIONS at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site will continue to follow a general management plan required by the National Park Service.

Jacks said the site is following the third of three alternative courses of action. “The first is to do nothing,” she said.

The next stage in the site development won’t reflect life as it was during Cole’s time but will include a modern visitors’ center in the balance of the barn that houses the Storehouse Studio.

“If someone gives us another half-million dollars, I’m ready to do it now,” said Jacks, who previously worked as marketing director at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

THE GRAND opening celebration for the Storehouse Studio will be from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 3 and is open to the public. Special exhibitions and presentations are planned.

The museum plans to regularly host temporary exhibits, such as a collection of work by Ralph Albert Blakelock, which is on display through Oct. 31.

For more information about Cedar Grove, visit the Web site

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rootInside the artist’s studio: Cole’s work space being restored