I first discovered the art of Thomas Cole in 1994. I had homeschooled my oldest daughter Bethany for a few years by then, using the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason. That included having weekly Picture Study - a time to look at several paintings by a single artist, over the course of a school term.
We had been on a search for art prints from different sources, and we were glad to see a homeschool magazine highlight some that we could tear out and add to our collection. A series on Thomas Cole appeared in the January issue, and we pored over Cole's "Voyage of Life," a visual allegory of man's passage through the river of life. Childhood - Youth - Manhood - Old Age - the hourglass, the angel, the changes in the sky and river bank and scenery - it was a feast for our eyes, as we sat together at the kitchen table and narrated to each other the details that we found in the four pictures.
Soon we got to know Cole's Oxbow (View from Mount Holyoke), his five-part series "Course of Empire," his scenes of waterfalls, and all the other artists who were a part of this kind of painting: Church, Cropsey, Innes, Durand, and Bierstadt. Each depiction of wilderness and grandeur was more beautiful than the next.
The magazine had rightly identified the location of the "Voyage of Life" paintings in a museum in upstate New York. But there had been no mention that Cole painted a second set of the same paintings. So when our little family walked through the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., a few years later, I gasped when I entered a room and found all four of Thomas Cole's "Voyage of Life" pieces right in front of us.
It's been several years since then. Our family grew to four children, and now three of them have graduated high school. Bethany is married with children of her own, and Hannah is engaged to be married. On her day off from work yesterday, Hannah and I took a trip to the home of Thomas Cole in Catskill, New York.
The town of Catskill is filled with differently painted cat sculptures , part of an annual artist exhibit. Last year when Bethany and her family were living and working at a camp in another part of New York state, we went through a town that had similar individual statues, only those were of ballerina shoes.
We stopped for lattes at a little coffee shop with walls decorated with works by Hudson River artists. Each table had a sprig of spearmint in a vase. It was a good beginning before our tour!
The Thomas Cole National Historic Site is a beautiful place, in the heart of the Catskill Mountains. The mansion itself is where Thomas and his beloved wife Maria (the tour guide pronounced her name like Mariah) lived with their children, where Cole painted many of his magnificent works, and where they entertained people like writer James Fenimore Cooper.
In front of the home stands a two-hundred-year-old honey locust tree. It had sections of thorns protruding from the bark, and I marveled at its size. The tour guide said that honey locusts normally don't live that long, but they know its age for sure from an old photo.
The tour used technology in powerful but tasteful ways. The parlor had frames on the walls, representative of the paintings Cole usually had hanging there as a kind of gallery. Once our group sat down, the ten-minute presentation began: a man's voice, with a slight British accent (Cole was born in England) spoke from Cole's writings, and it was against the backdrop of a changing media display of so much of Cole's art.
Everyone was moved by the expertly-done production, and it had even more meaning, knowing that we were in Thomas Cole's own home.
We went from there to the other parlor (east and west parlors, divided by the entry foyer), where the Cole family often spent time together. There were musical instruments (one which Cole had created), drawings (including architectural designs that were used in the formation of the statehouse in Ohio), games for the children, and several books.
There were table surfaces around the room with sensors, and when you approached them, media appeared of letters and quotes of Thomas Cole.
And around the ceiling in both parlors were the two very different newly-discovered friezes that Cole had painted. A couple of years ago, a curator noticed a piece of wallpaper had curled up; underneath it was a different color, and soon Cole's long-hidden handiwork would seen by the world.
Upstairs in the house we saw the bedroom as it was then, with Cole's trunk, his top hat, and other personal items.
The other large upstairs room was set up to show the creative process. Cole's own palettes and paint box were there, his own chair, and many of his sketches. There was information on how paints were mixed in those days, and Cole's own amazing color wheel. A small shelf on the wall held a few books, listed as Cole's inspiration: among them the Bible, Shakespeare's Complete Works, Downing's Rural Essays, and Paradise Lost.
The tour of the house was complete, so we walked past gardens and headed toward the old studio.
One half of the old barn housed the gift shop, filled with postcards, gifts, and the most wonderful books, as well as chairs set up in front of a screen that showed a short video on Cole's life.
But the other half of the building was a studio that the prior owner of the house (Maria Cole's uncle, who raised her and her sisters) had set up for Thomas.
Cole's actual easel was there, and a reproduction of the "Voyage of Life - Childhood," as this was where he painted the series.
The light poured in from the northern window, and the tour guide spoke of happy times Cole spent there, and of when his children would come into the studio to see his paintings.
Not far from the Thomas Cole home (also called "Cedar Grove") is the cemetery where he, Maria, and their family members are buried. Their grave stones each included portions of Psalm 23: Thomas' stone declares, "The Lord is my shepherd," while Maria's states, "I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." Despite living an active life (he hiked frequently through the mountains he fought so hard to preserve), Thomas Cole was just 47 years old when he died of pneumonia. He was an important contributor to American art, he was a writer, poet, musician, architect, teacher, husband, and father.
One of the joys of homeschooling my children has been sharing interests with them, not just while they are little, but - maybe especially - when they are grown. When Hannah was a little girl, and at the time the youngest in our family, she and I went to the American Girl Place in New York. I always remember the startled and delighted look on her face when she realized for this special day, she had me all to herself, and that she could lead the way through the many rooms filled with her favorite dolls and books. Today, I felt that same feeling, to be able to go through the home of a revered artist, and to be able to enjoy it with my daughter.