NEW YORK — On either side of the Hudson River, two artists’ homes tell the story of that famous genre of American landscape painting known as the Hudson River School.
In the village of Catskill, New York, you can visit the house where Thomas Cole, considered the founder of the Hudson River School, lived until his death in 1848. Across the river in Greenport sits Olana, a 250-acre landscape with an elaborate 1870s mansion designed by Cole’s star student, Frederic Edwin Church.
Autumn is the perfect season to visit the sites, and the 2-mile Rip Van Winkle Bridge connects Catskill with the small city of Hudson, located 5 miles from Olana, making it easy to see both in one day. You can even walk across if you’re trying to up your step count. Just remember that tours sell out, so book ahead, and note that the Cole house closes for the season on Oct. 30.
THOMAS COLE NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
It’s hard to imagine today, but in the early 19th century, “the concept of being an American was not very well-defined,” says Elizabeth Jacks, director of the Thomas Cole site. Cole, along with other artists and writers, helped define America’s cultural identity “with a new style of art that celebrated the beauty all around us as something that was a unique American treasure.”
Cole captured the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains on canvas “in a way that called upon people to appreciate it, care for it and preserve it,” Jacks said. That philosophy contrasted with the conventional sensibilities of his era, which saw the wilderness as something to be “developed and exploited.” Cole burst onto the art scene in 1825, when three of his works were shown in New York and he was “hailed as a genius. It was an overnight success story.”
Cole moved into the house in 1836. The Federal-style yellow brick house, built in 1815, offers a lovely view of the Catskills from a columned porch. A copy of a painting Cole did of the view is displayed on the porch, lined up with the scene it depicts. The comparison shows that the landscape is virtually unchanged in nearly two centuries.
Inside the home, you’ll find artifacts like Cole’s guitar along with exhibitions of contemporary art.
OLANA STATE HISTORIC SITE
Cole’s paintings depicted the natural world as grand and majestic, and that influenced an entire generation of 19th- century artists. One of those students was Church.
“Cole introduced Church to the hill where Church would later build his home, Olana, so the two are very intertwined,” Jacks said.
Church and the second generation of Hudson River painters romanticized their landscapes even more than their elders, filling their canvases with light and drama. The Church site, Olana, is also quite dramatic, very different from Cole’s spare and simple house. The contrast is part of what’s interesting about visiting both attractions.
Olana was named for an ancient Persian fortress. The exotic, elaborate mansion that serves as its centerpiece features arches and towers, stonework, bricks and tiles, and colorful inlaid designs and patterns on an asymmetrical exterior. Works by Church are displayed inside, along with paintings he collected, original furnishings and souvenirs from his world travels, including carpets, folk art, ceramics and costumes.
Church first sketched from the property in 1845 as a student of Cole’s. He later bought a farm there and built a cottage where he lived with his wife. Following an 18-month trip to Europe and the Middle East, Church returned to design Olana with Calvert Vaux (famed for his work on Central Park with Frederick Law Olmsted). The main house was built in the early 1870s. The property includes Church’s studio, woods, gardens, orchards and a visitor center.
The Hudson Valley offers many options for great food and places to stay overnight. About a two-hour drive from New York City, the area has seen a revival in recent years, with city residents relocating or buying second homes there. The farm-to-table movement has also spurred food-related businesses and projects. Among them, great restaurants like Swoon Kitchenbar in Hudson; the working farm and eateries at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Pocantico Hills and Buttermilk Falls, an inn, spa, restaurant and farm in Milton.
Other major attractions include the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site in Poughkeepsie, the Dia:Beacon art museum in Beacon and the Storm King Art Center in New Windsor. Many destinations are reachable by bus or train from New York City.
If You Go…
THOMAS COLE NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE: 218 Spring St., Catskill, New York; http://www.thomascole.org . Open through Oct. 30, $12, Tuesday-Sunday. Tickets sell out, so book ahead.
OLANA STATE HISTORIC SITE: 5720 State Route 9G, Greenport, New York (5 miles from Hudson); http://www.olana.org . House tours, $12, through Oct. 30, Tuesday-Sunday; beginning Nov. 4, Friday-Sunday. Tours sell out so book ahead. Landscape tour options available.