In a series of vignettes titled “In praise of generalism” for the Believer Magazine, author Ross Simonini champions the process and the spirit of a multi-faceted existence, rather than one obsessively dedicated to a single passion or discipline. Throughout the essay, he name-checks some of history’s impressive generalists: Helen Keller, Wolfgang von Goethe, Lonnie Johnson, and Dorothy Dunnett. The painter Thomas Cole was not included in Simonini’s treatise in support of generalism, but he certainly fits the bill. Though best-known today for the work that founded the first major American art movement, the Hudson River School of landscape painting, he was also an architect and dedicated environmentalist, before the latter practice was even considered a formal calling.
It is hard to say where Cole’s multitudinous interests would have taken him, if not for his early demise at the age of 47 in February of 1848. But a new exhibition opening on April 30 at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York, promises to give viewers an idea of the creative directions of the painter’s last years with a selection of works left in his studio at his death.
Curated by Franklin Kelly, an art historian and chief curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, “Thomas Cole’s Studio: Memory and Inspiration” will feature a selection of artwork and artifacts to recreate a sense of the studio building that Cole designed and built for himself in 1846. The “New Studio,” he called it back then.
“I have imagined organizing an exhibition on this topic since I was a graduate student,” said Kelly in a statement. “Many years ago, when I first visited what is now the spectacular Thomas Cole Site, I only saw then an abandoned home in great need of repair,” he recounted. “The New Studio was no longer standing, but I found its foundation and wondered about Cole’s brief time working there and what was left after his death that had been of such inspiration to so many other artists.”
Cole was at the peak of his fame in December of 1846, when he set up his new studio. He filled it with works from all phases of his career and prepared to embark on the creation of some of his largest-scale and most ambitious works yet. Unfortunately, the time he had there was limited, lasting less than two years before his death.
Among the works to be included in the exhibition are the five-canvas series The Cross and the World, which served as a second act to his well-known painting series The Course of Empire and The Voyage of Life. The Cross in the World series is what Cole was engaged with at the time of his death.
The exhibition appears to be the next step for the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, which preserves the artist’s Hudson Valley home and studio, and which has made efforts recently to generate programming that celebrates not only the artistic legacy of one of the most definitive painters in the budding United States, but the complexity of his interests and values as a person. Last year, the institution paired with the Olana State Historic Site (once the home of American landscape painter Frederic Church) and other partners to present the exhibition Cross Pollination. The collaborative exhibition spanned institutions and centuries to put artists — including Church, Cole, and their daughters along with contemporary artists — in conversation with each other on the topic of ecology.
Information about Cole’s studio and its contents is based on photographs of the space taken later in the 19th century. The exhibition also draws from new research of letters, inventories, and documents uncovered by Kelly and other researchers at the Thomas Cole Site and beyond. And lastly, the exhibition is informed by an 1850 letter by artist and Cole interlocutor Jasper Cropsey, which described many of the works and items present in the studio.
“It seemed as if Mr. Cole would … be in in a few minutes, for everything remains as when he last left painting,” Cropsey wrote in his letter. “Though the man has departed, yet he has left a spell behind him that is not broken.”