Home Dealers Calendar Articles Fine Art Database About AFA Login/Register
Home | Articles | Along The Hudson

Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826–1900), Catskill Mountains from the Home of the Artist, 1871. Oil on canvas, 221/8 x 363/8 inches. Courtesy of Olana State Historic Site, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

“One of the gems of the earth,” is how artist Thomas Cole (1800–1848) described a favorite forest haunt of his in New York State’s Hudson River Valley. This riverine region captivated a century artists, who shaped an influential tradition of native landscape painting; the so-called Hudson River school led by Cole.

The valley, edged by the Catskill and Shawangunk mountains and stretching 315 miles between Westchester County and Albany, offered sublime natural scenery, but was also gentrified enough for comfortable country living. Following Cole’s lead, numerous artists settled into grand mansions and rustic cottages—some seasonally and others year-round—several of whose homes have been preserved and are open to the public. A weekend journey through the valley provides an intimate look at the art, homes, and lives of some of America’s greatest landscape painters.

Frederic Church’s Olana. Photograph ©Peter Aaron / Esto.

Start with perhaps the best known and most spectacular of the Victorian artists’ home—Olana, in the town of Hudson, the architectural masterpiece designed by painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900). The well-traveled artist was so enamored with the area that in 1860, the same year he married, he bought a piece of land high above the river. Church selected this site because of its long views and dramatic light, elements often depicted in his paintings. His majestic works—of Catskills sunsets, snow-capped Andes, and Arctic icefloes—reflect his wonderment with the natural world; an awe shared by the public, who readily paid admission fees to his exhibitions.

View from Olana. Photograph ©Peter Aaron/Esto.

In 1867, Church purchased Sienghenbergh Summit above his property, and shortly thereafter, he began to draw up various plans for a grand home. He consulted with artist-architect Richard Morris Hunt (1827–1895) as well as the firm of Vaux, Withers & Company, which included renowned architect Calvert Vaux (1824–1895). In 1870, inspired by the architecture he had seen on a trip to the Holy Land, Church began a palatial orientalist design that at last satisfied him.

Church made nearly 550 drawings and watercolors delineating the details of Olana (named after an ancient Persian fortress/treasure house), and these images, along with his wife, Isabel’s, constant input, served as the blueprint for construction. A studio was added between 1888 and 1891, yet Church was fully aware that he would not have much use for this space since his rheumatic wrist made it increasingly difficult for him to paint. The Churchs enjoyed eight years together in the completed home; Isabel passed away in 1899, followed by Frederic a year later.

About an hour this side of Albany is the center of the world—I own it.
—Frederic E. Church, 1869

The state of New York, purchased the property from a Church descendent in 1966. Now a National Historic Landmark, the home has been preserved intact with the artist’s paintings, furnishings, and exotic travel souvenirs. Olana’s interior is open by guided tour from April through October, Wednesday to Sunday. It’s a good idea to reserve tickets up to two weeks in advance. The grounds are open daily from 8:00 a.m. to sunset. A visitor center and museum shop are open daily. Olana State Historic Site, Route 9G, Hudson, NY. For information, call 518.828.0135 or visit www.olana.org.

Thomas Cole (English-American, 1801–1848), On Catskill Creek, Sunset, 1845–1847. Oil on wood panel, 91/4 x 143/4 inches. Courtesy of a private collection; photograph courtesy of Questroyal Fine Art, LLC. Cole expert Ellwood Parry pinpoints the location of this rapid rendering as Cole’s favorite haunt on Catskill Creek, with Catskill High Peak and Round Top in the distance.

Crossing the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, travel five miles southwest of Olana, to visit The Thomas Cole National Historic Site in the town of Catskill. Cole (1801–1848) emigrated from England in 1818, at the age of 17, and seven years later, discovered the wild beauty of the Catskills. Shortly after, an exhibition of his landscapes, including Catskills scenes, catapulted him to fame as the most talented landscape painter of his generation in America. In the spring of 1832, after several years of promoting his work in New York and abroad, Cole rented a small outbuilding as a studio just a few miles north of the village.

Settled in his studio, with its panoramic mountain views, Cole worked on major commissions. His greatest patron was Luman Reed. This wealthy merchant and owner of a private art gallery in New York City commissioned the artist’s well-known series of paintings The Course of Empire (New-York Historical Society). To complete this commission, Cole remained in Catskill through the winter of 1835–1836. This extended stay fostered his strong opinions on the impact of industrialization on the land, especially its affect on the Catskills, the source of much of his inspiration. Other emotions took fire during this period as well, as Cole became enamored with his landlord’s daughter, Maria Bartow, and on November 22, 1836, they were married in the west parlor of Cedar Grove, the Bartow family’s 1815 brick Federal home that was given to the newlyweds.

…neither the Alps nor the Apennines, nor even Etna
itself, has dimmed in my eyes the beauty of our own Catskills.
—Thomas Cole

In March of 1839, the artist received a commission from Samuel Ward to paint another monumental series. A contemporary writer suggested that the waterway inspiration for this work, The Voyage of Life (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), was “the broad sweep of [the Hudson] waters.”

Ever Rest, Jasper Cropsey’s home.

While Cole’s artistic triumphs continued, his wealth did not, and in May of 1844, to ease financial pressures, he accepted Church as a student for a fee of $300 per year (plus room and board at $3 per week). Cole’s last and least successful series, The Cross in the World (various locations), was begun a few years later.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a campaign begun by The Thomas Cole Foundation (a group of New York City gallery owners) and continued by the Greene County Historical Society, saved Cedar Grove from the wrecking ball. The house was greatly deteriorated (in 1982 the property and its contents, including a number of Cole paintings, were unsuccessfully offered by Cole descendants to the state of New York for $175,000). Now a National Historic Landmark, the partially-restored home, including Cole memorabilia, family possessions, antique furniture, paintings, and illustrated panels, was opened to the public in 2001. Further rehabilitation of the interior and a revival of the gardens is underway.

Portrait of Cropsey by Edward L. Mooney, ca. 1847. Courtesy of Newington Cropsey Collection.

Cedar Grove is open by guided tour from May through October; call for hours. From September 6 to October 27, view an exhibition of photographs, art, and artifacts from the Catskill Mountain House, a popular hotel in Cole’s era. Fully tax-deductible contributions for the ongoing restoration may be made by check to Thomas Cole’s Cedar Grove. The Thomas Cole National Historic Site, 218 Spring Street, Catskill, NY. For information, call 518.943.7465 or 518.943.9350 or visit www.thomascole.org.

Two-and-a-quarter hours south of Catskill lies Hastings-on-Hudson, site of the Newington-Cropsey Foundation, established to preserve and display the art of Jasper F. Cropsey (1823–1900) in his final home and studio. The largely self-taught artist, born on Staten Island, only left the state of New York twice in his life, both times for long visits to Europe.

Like Cole, whom he enormously admired, Cropsey felt a great reverence for nature, seeing it as a direct manifestation of God. Early on, his focus was to depict scenery as accurately as possible. On European honeymoon with Maria Cooley in 1847, he continually sketched and painted his surroundings and created compositions from the sketches he had with him of the Hudson River Valley.

Jasper F. Cropsey (American, 1823–1900), Artist Painting the Hudson, 1872. Oil on canvas, 12 x 20 inches. Courtesy of Newington Cropsey Collection.

On a second extended European trip in 1855, English patrons were very impressed with Cropsey’s work, but did not believe in the accuracy of the colors depicted in his autumn paintings. Their incredulity prompted the artist to request actual American leaves be shipped over to demonstrate the truth of his hues. To finance their passage back home in 1863, the Cropseys auctioned off all their belongings. Remaining funds from their return trip were used to purchase land in Warwick, New York, on which they built Alladin, a 29-room Victorian mansion and studio, in 1869.

By 1880, this remarkable residence had become a financial burden. The Hudson River style had gone out of favor in the 1870s, leaving Cropsey so in debt that he was forced to sell Aladdin and auction off all his paintings.

Gallery of Art, Newington Cropsey Foundation.

Receiving a moderate sum of $5,000 for 68 paintings, the Cropseys bought a Gothic Revival home named Ever Rest in Hastings-on-Hudson. Here, with a view over the Hudson and the addition of a studio, Cropsey continued to paint until 1893 when he suffered a severe stroke that greatly affected the quality of his work.

Now the location of the Newington-Cropsey Foundation, in 1973 the homestead became both a national and a state historic site. The interior, containing many original furnishings, fully reflects the atmosphere of the Hudson River Valley lifestyle during the nineteenth century. Sketches, paintings, and studies by Cropsey are displayed in the context of period furniture, artwork, and decor. The foundation has also established an art gallery and the Cropsey Research Library, open by appointment to researchers and students interested in the region and its artists.

The grounds are open to the public without appointment from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. weekdays. Ever Rest is open weekdays from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. (closed December, January, and August). Appointments to tour the home may be arranged by calling Mrs. Teresa Bernert at 914.478.1372. Tour appointments for the Cropsey Gallery may be arranged in advance by calling the foundation (closed in January and August). The Newington-Cropsey Foundation, 25 Cropsey Lane, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. For information, call 917.478.7990 or visit www.newingtoncropsey.com.


MORE TO DO: The area offers legions of historic homes to visit, from the Rockefeller’s art-laden Kykuit in Sleepy Hollow to the lovely Lyndhurst in Tarrytown with its aesthetic movement interiors. For information on these and other historic sites, visit www.hudsonvalley.org.

SHOPPING: About 100 miles north of New York City (two hours by car or Amtrak) is Hudson, America’s first planned town, incorporated in 1785. Head to the architecturally-diverse Warren Street to discover “finds” at seventy antique shops and dozens of art galleries. For more take-home pleasure, look for treasures at the Caramoor Antiques Fair, Katonah, NY, September 27 to 29, and at the Rhinebeck Antiques Fair, Rhinebeck, NY, October 13 to 14.

DINING: Enjoy pastoral picnicking on the grounds of Olana: Grab a smoked salmon tortilla wrap to-go at Brandow’s & Company in Hudson.

READING: Sandra S. Phillips and Linda Weintraub, ed., Charmed Places: Hudson River Artists and Their Houses, Studios, and Vistas (New York: Edith C. Blum Institute, Bard College and The Vassar College Art Gallery in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1988).

Nina Barker is an associate at Lee Calicchio, Ltd. in New York City.

Antiques and Fine Art is the leading site for antique collectors, designers, and enthusiasts of art and antiques. Featuring outstanding inventory for sale from top antiques & art dealers, educational articles on fine and decorative arts, and a calendar listing upcoming antiques shows and fairs.