The Hudson River School of Art – America's first artistic movement - was founded by Thomas Cole, a British expatriate who had started his painting career as a young man in the mid-19th century. Cole first glimpsed the Great Northern Catskills from a steamship as he traveled up the Hudson River in the autumn of 1825. Here, Cole found the vibrant colors of fall in the Catskills inspiring when compared to the bleak autumnal landscape of his native England.
Following his first foray into the Catskills, Cole painted several scenes, including Kaaterskill Falls – garnering him the recognition of New York City's artistic community. Among the painting's admirers was Asher B. Durand, a gifted engraver who would become Cole's life-long friend and an influential Hudson River School painter in his own right.
Cole returned to the Catskills to continue painting,attracting artists and eventually establishing the Hudson River School of Art as a recognizable style. Cole and his disciples emphasized the ideal of the natural world – a romanticized aesthetic that took on an almost religious quality. Through the movement's influence, the raw, untouched landscape became something noble and sacred. Cole's school of painters depicted pristine landscapes where nature and humanity co-existed in peaceful beauty.
Cole maintained a studio at Cedar Grove in the town of Catskill after 1827. Here, he painted many of his Hudson River School works of art, eventually marrying the niece of Cedar Grove's owner and relocating to the area permanently.
The Hudson River School paintings inspired a reverence for nature and influenced generations of artists, including Hudson River School elites like Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, Samuel Colman and Jasper Cropsey.
The Hudson River School style of painting continued in popularity from 1825 to 1890, and became one the most cherished periods of American art. After Thomas Cole's untimely death in 1848, a second generation of Hudson River School artists rose to prominence. Painters like Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church became celebrities in their own right – continuing the style popularized by Cole and his contemporaries.
Disciples of the Hudson River School style meant to draw a sharp contrast between the pristine wilderness and the damaging effects of encroaching civilization. As the timber industry in New York began to take off, the Hudson River became the main thoroughfare for commerce between the wilderness and New York City. The movement embodied an idealized wilderness, consequently planting the seeds of conservation that would lead to the federal protection of wild spaces – our National Parks. It was also the idea of this wild space in New York that inspired Washington Irving's legendary folktale – Rip Van Winkle.
Now a historic site, the former home of Thomas Cole is open to visitors. Guided tours are available of Cole's home and studio. The house contains one of the premier art galleries of oil paintings and prints as well as rooms with Cole artifacts and period furnishings. Visitors can view a film about his art, and stroll through the flower gardens to see Cole's sweeping view of the Catskill Mountains.
Visitors may take in a special lecture about the Hudson River School or join a guided Catskills hike to the magnificent places seen in Thomas Cole's paintings on the Hudson River School Art Trail. The Trail takes hikers to many of the places that inspired the painters who created the first great American art movement. It is a 3-4 hour guided tour that starts at Cedar Grove, the home of Thomas Cole, and takes hikers on a journey to sites in the Catskill Mountains. The tour includes stops at North-South Lakes and Kaaterskill Falls-areas made famous by Hudson River School artists such as Cole, Durand, Frederic Church, Sanford Gifford, Jasper Cropsey and others.
Enjoy touring through history and museums celebrating the area's rich artistic heritage.