On Exhibit: A look at rare works of Thomas Cole

Hudson Valley artist's works on view at the Albany Institute of History & Art
“View of Featherstonhaugh Estate near Duanesburg,” Thomas Cole, 1826, oil on canvas in original frame.
“View of Featherstonhaugh Estate near Duanesburg,” Thomas Cole, 1826, oil on canvas in original frame.

Museums and galleries from Albany to New York City and even Europe are celebrating the life and work of one regional artist.

“2018 is the year of Thomas Cole,” said Douglas McCombs, the chief curator at the Albany Institute of History and Art. Its latest exhibition to open, “Thomas Cole’s Paper Trail,” celebrates some of the rare works of the artist who is recognized as the founder of the Hudson River School.

Cole, an immigrant from England, seemed to understand and capture the Hudson Valley in a way that was groundbreaking at the time and remains breathtaking today. Cole first came to the United States from England two-hundred years ago, in 1818, when he was 17. He worked a few jobs and traveled with his family to Ohio, where he received his first bit of training. A year or two later he moved to Pittsburgh and was able to train there while continuing to work.

It wasn’t until his first visit to the Catskills in 1825 that everything changed.

“It’s almost this legendary moment,” McCombs said.

Cole was taken by the natural beauty of the landscape, which he depicted with a style so unique that it resonates today. The Albany Institute has a rather large collection of Thomas Cole paintings, according to McCombs. They’re currently loaning out many of his paintings to the Metropolitan Museum for their “Thomas Cole Journey,” exhibition and to a museum in London. His paintings are imbued with this sense of magnificence, one that a viewer could get lost in. For those familiar with the Mohawk Hudson region his works make the everyday views seem strange. Local viewers can, in a sense, rediscover the beauty of the landscapes they’ve seen time and time again. It’s this stylistic talent got Cole his first few big sales in 1825, all to artists who would go on to praise him and spread the word about his work.

While Cole is known for painting the Catskills region, in his early years, he actually worked in Duanesburg. One of his first patrons, George William Featherstonhaugh, invited Cole to spend the winter of 1825/1826 at Featherstonhaugh’s home:

“I am extremely anxious to get to painting again & also to feel the comfort of a good country fire,” Cole wrote in a letter to Featherstonhaugh.

“View of Featherstonhaugh Estate near Duanesburg,” a piece he was commissioned to create, is on display in “Thomas Cole’s Paper Trail.” On loan from the Featherstonhaugh Family Trust, it’s rarely seen.

The work is at once peaceful and apocalyptic, with a brilliant dappled light illuminating a twisted tree, and drawing attention to the tempestuous clouds looming in the background.

Even though it’s one of Cole’s early work, it’s just as sophisticated as his later works. However, it’s only one piece of the Institute’s exhibit. Since so many of the museums were focused on Cole’s paintings, the Institute decided to focus on a different aspect of Cole’s life and work: his paper trail.

That includes a few of his early sketches, before Cole’s career was quite so established, as well as some of his sketches as he prepared to paint larger pieces.

“You get to see the artist working through pieces,” McCombs said.

In “Highlands of the Hudson near New Windsor,” a drawing from 1835, Cole doodled outside the margins, drawing a cart and some foliage, which he may have been struggling to ‘get right’ in the drawing itself.

“It’s interesting to look at the paper that remains  . . . you get a very personal look at the artist,” McCombs said.

That includes a poem he wrote for his wife and a letter from his son, telling his father that he missed him. There’s even an account book from Cole, recorded from 1837 to 1847, revealing a bit about the only two students that Cole ever took on: Frederic Edwin Church and Benjamin McConkey.

Cole died relatively young, in his late 40s. Paying tribute to his life, the Institute included the funeral oration that was recorded, as well as a condolence letter from Asher Brown Durand, an artist and fellow member of the Hudson River School, addressed to Cole’s wife.

The Albany Institute was the first to exhibit an retrospective on Cole’s work, in 1941 and there’s plenty of reason to believe that the Institute just may do another retrospective on the artist in the future.

In addition to “Thomas Cole’s Paper Trail,” the Institute is highlighting the school which Cole found in their long-term exhibition, “The Hudson River School.”

If you can’t get enough of Thomas Cole’s work, here are a few other exhibitions to check out:

“Thomas Cole and the Garden of Eden” at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown. The exhibition is open until September 30.

“Picturesque and Sublime: Thomas Cole’s Trans-Atlantic Inheritance,” at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. On exhibition through November 4.

For more information on “Thomas Cole’s Paper Trail,” visit albanyinstitute.org

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