Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Story Behind the Cover

Thomas Cole's Sunny Morning on the Hudson River (1827) is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Cole painted it when he was 26, one of the earliest paintings of the Hudson River School of Art style. The view approximates the view from Polly's Rock near Round Top Mountain, which pokes out on the left almost in the way the mountain intrudes over Hearts Content Road in the town of Catskill.

The rock outcropping in the center foreground is not there; Cole added it as a dramatic flourish, as well as the wind-swept pine. Notice that the wind comes from the north and affects the mountains as well as the setting up-close, emphasizing the romantic theme. The play of light also calls attention to the center foreground, with a mere splash added on the mountains to the right and the glowing light on the Hudson River far, far away. There appear to be two sail on the river, going away from us to the south and the city. The curve in the river is exaggerated, and the two hills abruptly rising from curve are not there in reality, but appear to be Cole's evocation of the Highlands river passage. The mountains behind the river evoke the Skunnemunks in Orange County, and would not have been visible from this location.

The Story Behind the Cover
Sunny Morning on the Hudson (Thomas Cole, 1827)

Modern critics—at least in the early twentieth century—criticized Cole for changing reality in his paintings, and he got some guff about it from contemporaries as well. He was following the style of a popular English painter, John Martin, who was considered a pedestrian showman of a low-brow sort. Cole's evocation of the dramatic in the wild scenery he depicted was also a borrowing, from another Englishman, Richard Payne Knight. Yet the critic Edgar Allen Poe defended Cole's exuberance by suggesting that only in nature painting could the “exalted or idealized” take precedence over mere “imitation.” These two areas of poetic theft—if I may call it that—are now hallmarks of the Hudson River School style.  

...only in nature painting could the "exalted or idealized" take precedence over mere "imitation"...

The date of the painting demonstrates how early Cole had penetrated into the escarpment of the northeastern face of the Catskills. There is a waterfalls not far from here where he probably fished.  We know that he was in the vicinity because his Landscape with Dead Trees—one of the three paintings that he exhibited following his historic 1826 excursion upriver—is set at North Lake, which is behind this setting to the southeast, probably not more than two miles distant over the escarpment's crest. Preliminary sketches for Sunny Morning may have been done on that first visit, and the painting finished in the following year.

 I've been there. I've had picnics at Polly's Rock. I've hunted ginseng along the eastern-facing hills, and watched deer come through, embarrassed at having been seen. I used to take my shepherd, Leda, on the dirt road that runs by Polly's Rock (you cannot see it from the road) and pause on the backside of the Catskill Game Farm to watch the llamas in their pens—which simply fascinated the dog. We saw a red fox cross the road near the rock on one of those excursions. The game farm is closed now, and the dirt road rarely used, and you cannot pull over and park anymore and walk out to the precipice to see the view. It's private now, a a bridle area I believe, and I have seen the lilting prance of a teen-aged girl on horseback lofting across the high grass among the trees on Polly's Rock.