Thomas Cole & His CedAr Grove
The air is buzzing at Cedar Grove, 19th-century landscape painter Thomas Cole’s country home in Catskill, NY, where historians recently uncovered century-old decorative artworks hidden beneath layers of paint. Experts agree that they were painted by Thomas Cole.
The discovery prompted exciting research into what Cedar Grove really looked like when he and his family lived there, and a fresh restoration, at what is now called the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, that is surprisingly bright and bold!
So how did the founder of America’s first major art movement, the Hudson River School, decorate his upstate home? In a nature-inspired splash of colors meant to showcase his paintings, enhance the views, and frame everyday life with light!
Text by Jennifer Holz
Photos by George Holz
“…It is here that taste, which is the perception of the beautiful, and the knowledge of the principles on which nature works, can be applied, and our dwelling places made fitting for refined and intellectual beings.” Thomas Cole, 1836, “Essay on American Scenery”
Why would America’s most iconic 19th century artist act as his own interior decorator?
Thomas Cole (1801-1848) actually grew up in the business of décor. Born in Lancashire, England, where his father worked in the area’s booming textile industry, Thomas made his earliest childhood drawings by copying the scenery he found on cups and saucers.
By the age of 14, Thomas was apprenticed as an engraver, designing the bright patterns of Lancashire calico. After his family emigrated to America in 1818, he joined his father designing and manufacturing wallpaper and floor cloth.
During his early years in America, Thomas freelanced all sorts of décor-related jobs — he did engravings and painted scenery on theatre sets, window-shades, bellows, panels, furniture, and Japan-ware.
He sounds like the quintessential struggling artist.
He was. After living as an itinerant portrait painter, he moved to a cramped little apartment in downtown Manhattan with his family. There, he studied and painted in earnest, exhibiting his early compositions in a shop — where he was discovered and quickly rose to fame.
People always describe him as a self-taught genius, but according to historic-interiors expert Jean Dunbar — who wrote the delightful essay Thomas Cole and the Decorative Arts and consulted on the restoration — he learned the foundations of drawing, composition, and color from his early training in textile design.
How is the restoration different than we might have imagined?
It’s brighter! The southern facing entryway is vivid periwinkle, with a multicolored striped woven carpet on the ascending staircase, and hand-painted green, black, and red floor cloth.
The West Parlor is painted a pale sky lavender with a hand-woven carpet of red peacocks against a repeating gold geometric pattern. The East Parlor is leafy green with a brightly colored rug featuring red roses, perfect for eastern light. The handmade rugs, still works-in-progress, will begin arriving in May.
How did nature inform his colors?
Thomas immersed himself in wilderness to find the “truth in nature” for his palette —paying special attention to the effects of light and shadow.
He used interior colors to frame the views outside his windows and to compliment his own paintings, which he showcased on the walls for potential buyers.
The subtle lavender of the West Parlor enhances the purple haze of the distant Catskills and also matches the sky in Cole’s The Architect’s Dream (a reproduction by Geoff Howell Studio), which now hangs on the wall. A closer look reveals a striking similarity between the decorative borders on the parlor walls and those in the painting.
This is a fantastic reveal as to how he meant his artwork to be seen — as part of an integrated colorful environment rather than a monochromatic museum experience.
So what does that tell us about Thomas?
He valued taste. A beautiful home, full of light, with great views and meticulously coordinated colors was vitally important to him to “protect the tender flowers of imagination.” Décor was an essential part of his vision.
Did Thomas Cole “hear” colors?
Some historians have suggested that he did. He referred to his color wheel as “the music of colors” and wrote “I believe that colors are capable of affecting the mind, by combination, degree, and arrangement, like sound.” Thomas played the flute and his sister used to sing to him when he painted. Whether he was synesthetic or not, he was deeply affected by color.
Did his background in design affect his color choices?
Jean Dunbar suggests that Thomas’s early work with calico fabrics explains his taste for brights. Textiles fade. So, designers tended to use brighter hues with the intention that sun and time would drab them. The industry also taught him to set off subtle colors with a splash of something vivid to make them pop. You can see the same technique in his paintings.
What was life like at Cedar Grove?
Cedar Grove was a working family farm with orchards, crops, and diverse livestock on 110 acres of rolling hills. They kept chickens in the yard, which tended to hang out in front of his studio, and had a kitchen garden near the house.
Thomas lived in the 1815 Federal-style three story main house with his wife Maria, her 3 sisters, her “uncle Sandy” Thomson, and a growing brood of children whom he called his “little rogues.”
What was his marriage like?
As biographer and friend Louis Legrand Noble wrote, “Nature was his ruling passion.” In picturesque terms — if Maria was the beautiful, nature was the sublime.
He did write her some very affectionate letters while he was in Europe and sketched a lovely portrait of her. The reproduction is now hanging at the site.
Did he live at Cedar Grove full time?
Thomas had a serious wanderlust. He travelled frequently, twice to Europe, and regularly on sketching expeditions through the Catskills and Adirondacks. He especially loved to walk about the wilderness with friends, singing and talking late into the night. He was very sentimental about these excursions.
Wasn’t Thomas Cole Frederic Church’s teacher?
Yes. And if you look at Cedar Grove, you can see the elements that inspired Frederic to create Olana — The sweeping view from the porch, the studio, the working farm, Thomas’s love of trees and his sadness at the loss of wilderness. (See issue #4 for our timely feature on Frederic Church)
How did Thomas Cole change the way Americans regarded nature?
Morphing together picturesque ideals, spiritual yearnings, and his direct, often euphoric, experience of nature, he came up with a fresh new perspective. The wild was no longer a thing to be feared, but embraced as something deeply and spiritually transformative.
Was he political?
Thomas was critical of the expansionist policies of president Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) and the “tree destroyers” who clear-cut his beloved forest. A prolific and published writer, he wrote about his “sorrow” at the “ravages of the axe” in his Essay on American Scenery. But he was not directly involved in politics.
Who was in Thomas Cole’s famous inner circle?
Thomas forged close friendships among his circle of influencers who were key in creating a uniquely American identity in the arts and literature.
They included journalist/poet William Cullen Bryant, novelist James Fenimore Cooper, and artist Asher B. Durand whose painting Kindred Spirits tributes the manner in which Thomas illuminated the beauty of the Catskills to his generation.
What is the significance of the restoration?
Executive Director Elizabeth Jacks envisions the renewed site as “the birthplace of American art.” If that sounds ambitious, consider that Thomas Cole not only found his inspiration there, but also entertained “the artistic and cultural leaders” of the 19th century who furthered his legacy of the Hudson River School, America’s first art movement.