On the trail of art in the Catskills

The artists in the Hudson River School didn't have to dream up the landscapes they painted. Surrounded by the Catskills, they found inspiration in placid creeks and cascading waterfalls framed by trees turningvivid gold and red.

Many of the places they embraced in the mid-1800s are relatively unchanged today. A new guide brochure, the Hudson River School Art Trail, maps seven sites in a 15-mile radius so people can hike the same paths the painters did to discover what inspired America's first major art movement.

The journey begins at the home of founder Thomas Cole in Catskill, a town 130 miles north of New York City. The porch of Cedar Grove, a national historic site open to the public since 2001, looks west toward a panoramic view of numerous Catskill peaks. It's what Cole saw from the west parlor,where he was married, and the master bedroom, where he died in 1848.

"He would just go on foot from here and spend the night," said Elizabeth Jacks, Cedar Grove's director. "He wanted to get just to the right place at dawn in order to wake up and see the sun come over the mountains." The home's second floor has gallery space for a few Cole paintings, although hiswell-known series such as "The Course of Empire" and "The Voyage of Life" are in museums. His studio -- with his easel, books and art supplies -- is in a separate building that opened this year.

Cole, who emigrated from England in 1818, first visited the Hudson Valley in 1825. His paintings of the untouched American wilderness attracted others including Frederic Edwin Church, Asher Durand, Sanford Gifford and Jasper Cropsey.

The trail's next stop is the home of Church, one of Cole's last students. He designed an ornate Persian-style villa on 250 acres overlooking the Hudson in the 1870s. Olana, a treasure trove of Church's paintings and souvenirs from his extensive travels to Latin America and the Holy Land, was built to showcase the natural surroundings.

"He thinks of these views as pictures," associate curator Valerie Balint said. "He's made them to be pictures in a very calculating sort of way." Close by is a view of Catskill Creek, which Cole and Church captured, that is accessible from the gazebo of an Italian restaurant, Tatiana's. The trailguide describes 11 paintings comparable to current views, including Cole's and Church's scenes of the creek; Cropsey's painting of Catskill Mountain, and Cole's painting of Kaaterskill Falls, with photos of how the sites look today and information on how to find them.

Drive through Palenville, a gathering spot for the Hudson River School artists, and up into the mountains about three miles to find a scene captured by Cole in "The Clove," where peaks overlap into the distance. Just down the road is the path to Kaaterskill Falls. A short hike ends at the base of the two narrow waterfalls, one of which flows into a pool that feeds the second waterfall. Together, they are 260 feet high.

"You have to experience the walk," said Robert Gildersleeve, executive director of the local Mountain Top Historical Society. "You have to go through the landscape and arrive at the location to truly enjoy the romantic feeling they had."

A huge draw in the 1820s was a resort called the Catskill Mountain House. Though the building no longer exists, the area surrounding it, now part of North-South Lake state campground, is the final location on the trail.

Gildersleeve, who recently wrote the book "Catskill Mountain House Trail Guide: In the Footsteps of the Hudson River School," said his favorite spot is Bear's Den. The art trail recommends two hours -- one hour hiking each way -- to get there and see the picturesque spot where the resort once stood.

"I like the composition of it. You see down into the Hudson Valley, you see the nearby lake," Gildersleeve said.

His book features detailed maps of longtime trails, accompanied by descriptions from period writers like James Fenimore Cooper and William Cullen Bryant who walked them.

A clear fall weekend would be ideal for exploring the art trail, and you don't need to visit the historic sites to appreciate the views.

For those unfamiliar with the Hudson River School, Jacks recommends visiting collections at the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan, the Albany Institute of History and Art or the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn.

"Nature has spread for us a rich and delightful banquet. Shall we turn from it?" Cole once wrote. "We are still in Eden."

IF YOU GO

Click on "Follow the Hudson River School Art Trail" at www.thomascole.org. Brochures about the trail may be picked up at Cedar Grove, or to obtain one by mail, send a self-addressed stamped envelope with 60 cents worth of postage to Cedar Grove, P.O. Box 426, Catskill, N.Y., 12414.

CEDAR GROVE (THOMAS COLE NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE): 218 Spring St., Catskill, N.Y.;www.thomascole.org or (518) 943-7465. Tours, $6, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday through October.

OLANA STATE HISTORIC SITE: 5720 State Route 9G, Hudson, N.Y.; www.olana.org. Tours, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday through November; open weekends and by appointment December-March.Reservations recommended. Adults, $7; seniors, $5; children, $2. Vehicle fee of $5 on weekends and holidays.

NORTH-SOUTH LAKE PUBLIC CAMPGROUND: Three miles northeast of Haines Falls. Open through October. Day-use fee of $4.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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