Following the Artists Who Followed the Hudson

New York Times, 2012



THE landscape painters of America’s first homegrown art movement, the Hudson River School, hauled easels, sketchbooks and pigment-filled pig bladders as they picked their way along cliffs vulnerable to avalanches and across mucky shores.

Alas, I cannot paint; my only art skill is sketching our cats on letters to our daughter at summer camp. But I don’t mind navigating dirt roads, getting scratched and muddy and sometimes hitchhiking in pursuit of gob-smacking scenery. And whether or not the romantic aesthetic of the Hudson River School is to your taste, the magnificent views — many still much as they were in the mid-1800s — are worth any number of treks.

Certainly that was part of the thinking of the creators of the Hudson River School Art Trail, the brainchild of museums including the homes of Frederic Edwin Church and Thomas Cole, nonprofit environmental and heritage advocacy groups and government agencies. It is less a single trail than almost two dozen, spread across four states, each leading to a spot painted by one of the movement’s artists. The trail project, introduced in 2005 as a Web site with maps, directions and information about the associated artists and paintings, has nearly tripled the number of its sites this year, expanding on those in the Hudson River Valley of New York to include the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts and the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

The first site listed on the trail is the home and studio of Thomas Cole, the Englishman credited with founding the Hudson River School. Falling in love with the Catskills in the 1820s, Cole settled there on land overlooking the valley gouges that his friend and fellow artist Frederic Edwin Church called “the center of the world.” Cole’s house, Cedar Grove, in Catskill, is now a museum furnished with his painting tools and artworks. Church’s nearby home, Olana, is also among the first sites on the trail, as is a view favored by several of the artists and long beloved by tourists: the stunning Kaaterskill Falls.

Through Friday the Cedar Grove staff is soliciting new paintings executed at trail sites for an exhibition that opens Sept. 23. (On Sept. 21 a major show, “Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School,” opens at the New-York Historical Society after a national tour.)

Not willing to wait for the fall foliage, when the views are bound to be at their most spectacular, I set off with my patient husband in a rental car on two recent weekends, bypassing the earlier sites to follow the new trail extensions. (There’s also an imminent extension to geysers and springs in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and maybe I’ll try out that trip suggestion on my husband next year.) The Web site’s directions are sometimes flawed (and the New England parts were still in beta form when we traveled, to be final by Friday), but driving in giant loops along the Hudson and deep into New England, we were able to grasp something of what the artists and their audiences believed and felt: the presence of the divine in nature.

We were prepared for the first disappointment on our route. Jasper Cropsey, a Staten Island native and devoted Cole follower, lived and worked in a Gothic Revival cottage in Hastings-on-Hudson that he called Ever Rest. It is now part of the Newington-Cropsey Foundation museum, and we knew it was not open on weekends. So where Cropsey saw unkempt groves and choppy currents buffeting sailboats from a window there, we consoled ourselves with views of not much more than a fenced-off duck pond in the shadow of a street overpass. The trail view, seen in a painting that hangs beside the window, would have to wait for another day.

We had better luck following in the footsteps of Cropsey’s colleague Sanford Robinson Gifford, who trolled the whole of the Hudson banks, depicting in his paintings the soft turns in the river that James Fenimore Cooper had likened to “a curled shaving” when seen from on high. Gifford pretended not to notice industrial plants and quarries on the hills, although his own painting career depended on financing from the waterfront iron works in Hudson, N.Y., belonging to his father, Elihu and built on rocks at the foot of Mount Merino.

“Gifford may well have foreseen the changes his father helped to effect and sought to preserve pictorially the pastoral charm of the location he knew as a boy,” the art trail Web site notes.

Gifford was not alone. Mills, factories, foundries and tanneries were already encroaching on a number of the views when the Hudson River School painters traipsed the Catskills and beyond, but the artists tended to crop out the unsightly parts, paying homage to primeval nature in the early environmentalist vein of romantic writers like Cooper and Washington Irving. Storm clouds and diagonal sunbeams add drama to the compositions, yet the artists did not always see such convenient artful lines when they stood outdoors sketching.

“You often see them taking liberties,” the art historian said Kevin J. Avery, part of a scholarly team that has spent years researching and developing this tourist trail, in a recent phone interview.

At Gifford’s haunts in Croton Point Park we never did find the Web site’s suggested trailhead marked with a “No Swimming Area” sign. It would have led us effortlessly to the sandy coves that inspired Gifford’s “elegant, tapering view of Hook Mountain and the distant Palisades.” (The 1866 painting, “Hook Mountain, Near Nyack,” now belongs to the Yale University Art Gallery.) Instead we drove past RV’s and then hiked among early-19th-century yew trees; a sign explained that they had originally been shipped upriver from a nursery in Queens. To reach the water I stumbled alone down root-pocked trails lined with poison ivy. (My husband didn’t have the right shoes.) At one serene cove a slashed tire in the sand spoiled the mood for me. But at a rocky spit I caught my breath at a panorama of hills, misty bridges and steeples.

People fishing there were staring at the water and their rods. I blurted out, “I wish I had a paintbrush.”

One amused fisherwoman looked back over her shoulder and asked, “Do you paint?” I lied, “I do O.K.,” and mimed dabbing a brush at an easel.

Rain was threatening by the time I scrambled back up to the main trail, so we flagged down a passing flatbed truck for a ride to our car. As we lurched down a gravel road through marshland, I was laughing so hard over being a middle-aged arts writer hitchhiking al fresco that I almost didn’t notice when Gifford’s “elegant, tapering view” — the one I had just seen from a different angle — rose up at the horizon.

In Hudson, Gifford had frequented Parade Hill at the end of Warren Street, not far from the family ironworks. A rusted silo looms over a parking lot where he had seen dirt roads and marshland. But forests have reclaimed some of the bald farmland that he had painted as pale stripes on the hills.

The art trail also honors some rather obscure artists among Cole’s dozens of followers. From the grounds of what is now the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park the Hamburg-born painter Johann Hermann Carmiencke captured river islands and overlapping slopes on an 1859 canvas, “Landscape, Hyde Park, New York,” now at the Brooklyn Museum. He dotted them with cows and peasants that must have reminded him of his homeland’s Rhine banks.

Across the river in Kingston the Web site’s recommended “short trail that leads through the woods to the top of a bluff” in Hasbrouck Park was elusive. The English painter Joseph Tubby came upon vistas of pastures and sailboats there. We took a wrong turn to a waterfront pavilion, where a new bride was hugging guests at her reception, and kids wriggled and danced in spite of their dress-up clothes.

“Why isn’t somebody out here painting that?” I found myself thinking. It was one of countless scenes along our hurried, winding drive that I thought would make a good subject for someone with talent: why not the mournful gray humps of the Indian Point nuclear plant, a weedy drive-in showing the Batman movie, a church thrift store called That Nothing Be Lost?

We had a few more navigational mishaps on the New England portion of our trip, based on Web site directions still in trial form. Trails to an overlook called Artists Bluff, near Echo Lake in Franconia, N.H., eluded us, so we headed right to the lake, which looked docile when we got to the beach, packed with swimmers and picnickers. Albert Bierstadt had portrayed it as a hollow between jagged hills and cascading rocks in his 1861 landscape, now at Smith College. Ski trails gash the nearby woods, and the sun sparks on chrome from passing cars.

A highway curve has also neatened the rim of Saco Lake near the New Hampshire hamlet of Hart’s Location (best known for opening its polls just after dawn during presidential elections). In 1839 Cole showed a horseback rider dwarfed by boulders and dead trees in the wilderness spot; settlers there had been killed in avalanches. Cole had hiked up arduously with an artist friend, the Web site reports, “soon after the Saco River had flooded and washed away some of the bridges they might have used.”

The lake we saw was just glassy, mirroring the shore’s composition of silvery rock slabs and reddening dead pines.

The National Gallery owns the Cole painting, “A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (Crawford Notch),” and a copy hangs in the gift shop at a train depot by the lake. I asked the shop clerk, “Do people still paint here?” He nodded, but then angled his head toward the Cole. “Nothing comes out as beautiful as that,” he said.

At the top of Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, Cole had painted himself at work overlooking a hairpin turn in the Connecticut River. (That artwork, known as “The Oxbow,” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Based on my misleading map printout from the Web site, we first ended up at a poison ivy bed by the waterfront and then realized that we needed to snake up the mountain road through J. A. Skinner State Park in Hadley, Mass.

An eroded path at the top leads to a boxy 1850s hotel now being restored. (The road is sometimes closed for construction, so call the park for updates before heading out.) I held up my printout of Cole’s scene, comparing the lost and surviving past to the evolving present.

Trees have fuzzed over farmland rectangles that Cole saw. Powerboats were causing gorgeous white streaks on the river. A student was crouched over a book alongside the trail. I was hoping he would be sketching, but instead there were mathematical formulas across the pages.

I excitedly showed him my page, explaining that our valley view at that moment was like a smudged thumbprint of the Cole masterpiece.

“Thanks for listening,” I said, when I ran out of material.

“Thanks for sharing,” he said, without detectable irony. Then I scurried back downhill to the rental car that had to be returned by nightfall.


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