The Thomas Cole National Historic Site presents a new exhibition ‘Thomas Cole’s Studio: Memory and Inspiration’ curated by National Gallery of Art Senior Curator Franklin Kelly
Thomas Cole was already America’s most famous landscape painter when he died suddenly at the age of 47 in February 1848. His legacy continues to influence American art to this day, and a new exhibition “Thomas Cole’s Studio: Memory and Inspiration” explores the creative directions of the painter’s later years, the rich and diverse group of works left in his studio upon his death, and how his example so powerfully affected the evolution of art in America. The exhibition is curated by Franklin Kelly, Senior Curator and Christiane Ellis Valone, Curator of American Paintings at the National Gallery of Art.
The exhibit, hosted by the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, will be on view at the Thomas Cole Site in Catskill, NY, from April 30 through October 30, 2022. It will then travel to the Albuquerque Museum in Albuquerque, NM, and be on at see from November 19, 2022 to February 12, 2023.
The death of Thomas Cole shook the American art world. Poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant wrote that Cole’s death left “a void that astonishes and worries…”. It was as if one of the “greatest peaks” in the Catskill Mountains had suddenly disappeared.
In December 1846, Cole moved his studio into a new building of his own design and filled it with drawings. In this “New Studio”, Cole began working on often large-scale and some of the most powerful and complex landscape paintings he had ever created. When he died, after just over a year of using the studio, most of these works – including the five canvases La Croix et le Monde, the successor to his famous series of paintings, Le Cours de l’ Empire and The Voyage of Life – and Cole’s own grand ambitions for the rest of his career remained unrealized.
Cole’s family maintained the New Studio after his death as a shrine to his memory, allowing visitors to experience him as he was and be inspired by all he passed on about himself and his art. Upon entering, they were immersed in Cole’s world – the room where he painted, with a view of the Catskill Mountains that inspired him.
When the famous American artist Jasper Cropsey was there in 1850, he wrote in a letter: “It seemed that Mr. Cole would … arrive in a few minutes, for all remains as when he left the painting for the last time … . Although the man is gone, yet he left behind an unbroken spell.
This act of preservation of the New Studio proved crucial to maintaining and expanding Cole’s legacy and ensuring his profound influence on art in America. For many years it provided the largest and most comprehensive collection of works by this renowned artist available anywhere. For the painters who would bring landscape national significance in mid-19th century America, including Asher B. Durand, Frederic Edwin Church, John F. Kensett, and Susie Barstow, Cole’s unbroken “spell” would indeed prove a key generative influence in fulfilling his legacy.
The New Studio was unusual: a self-contained building specially designed by the artist himself. While Thomas Cole is best known today as the founder of the nation’s first major art movement, now known as the Hudson River School of Landscape Painting, he was also an architect. He designed several buildings that were constructed, including the Ohio State Capitol in Columbus and St. Luke’s Church in Catskill.
Other buildings he designed were his temporary studio in the property’s warehouse, which he used for seven years until he built the now reconstructed new studio, which serves as a home. for this exhibition. The exhibition features a selection of artworks and artifacts to serve as a first re-imagining of what visitors would have seen upon entering the new studio. It contains 26 oil paintings by Thomas Cole from the collections of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site and other renowned institutions such as the National Gallery of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Albany Institute of History & Art, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Wadsworth Atheneum and other public and private collections. The exhibit also includes a recreation of his working environment in the studio, including graphite drawings and oil and pen sketches, as well as Cole’s easels, brushes, palettes and other painting materials and reference materials such as plaster casts, geological specimens, and musical instruments.
The exhibition is informed by Jasper Cropsey’s 1850 letter detailing many of the things that were present in the studio, as well as photographs taken by the Cole family of the preserved space later in the 19th century, and new research into letters, inventories, and documents conducted on the Thomas Cole site by Franklin Kelly and others. In creating this exhibition, Kelly was joined by consultant curator Annette Blaugrund, independent scholar and author of Thomas Cole: The Artist as Architect, and Kate Menconeri, Chief Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs, Contemporary Art and Fellowship at the Thomas Cole Site, who both coordinated the exhibition and edited the accompanying catalogue.
“I’ve imagined putting on an exhibit on this topic since I was a graduate student,” Franklin Kelly said. “Many years ago, when I first visited what is now the spectacular Thomas Cole site, all I saw was an abandoned house in dire need of repair. The New Studio no longer existed, but I found its foundations and wondered about how little time Cole spent working there and what remained after his death that had inspired so many other artists. It’s exciting to collect a selection of art and artifacts known to have been in the new studio and show it to new generations.
“When we rebuilt Thomas Cole’s new studio as an exhibition space several years ago, we hoped that one day we could bring back the art and artifacts that had been there before,” said Elizabeth B. Jacks, executive director of the Thomas Cole National. Historical site. “This would not have happened without the extraordinary scholarship, passion and determination of Franklin Kelly. Thanks to everyone involved with this exhibition, it now opens the door to a whole new appreciation of Thomas Cole’s late paintings and the impact of this magical place on American art.
A fully illustrated catalog published by Hirmer Publishers in Munich, Germany will accompany the exhibition with a lead essay by Franklin Kelly. Other essays are written by Annette Blaugrund; William L. Coleman, Director of Collections at The Olana Partnership, and Lance Mayer and Gay Myers, renowned paint conservators.