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A natural canvas

American painters' love of landscape began in Catskills

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / July 26, 2006

CATSKILL, N.Y. -- In the typical Hudson River School painting, masses of cumulus clouds rise above an outsize vista of river and mountains. We always figured that those scenes were embellished by artistic license -- until we visited the painters' haunts where the northern Catskill Mountains meet the Hudson River Valley.

As we crossed the Hudson on the high bridge at Castleton , the scenery was in our faces. We looked downriver past Rattlesnake and Coxsackie islands, and saw heaps of cumulus congestus percolating over the rippling spine of the distant Catskill ridges.

The cult of American landscape began here when Thomas Cole started sketching and painting the wilderness near Catskill village in 1825. ``Landscape hadn't been `done' yet," guide Erica Benton explained on a tour of Cole's home and studio, Cedar Grove . ``He created a type of art that Americans could call their own."

The yellow, Federal-style home features a wraparound veranda with sweeping views of Cole's beloved Catskills. The tour progresses from the parlor where Cole was married in 1836 (his wife's uncle owned the house) to the upstairs bedroom where he died in 1848 at 47 . When the site opened as a museum in 2001, curators chose not to install artificial light in his studio on the property. ``The light you see," Benton said, gesturing to the large north windows, ``was the light he painted by."

Cedar Grove is the starting point of the Hudson River School Art Trail that ranges from artists' homes to vistas that became touchstones of the heroic, ultimately patriotic style of landscape painting. The scenes vary in accessibility from roadside views to short walks to modestly challenging hikes. (Cedar Grove hands out a driving tour brochure.)

The logical base for the tour is Catskill village, a 19th-century river trade center on the rebound. Vacant storefronts still mar Main Street, but art galleries, antiques dealers, restaurants, and decor shops host evening wine receptions on the second Saturday of each month (www.mainstreetcatskill.com ). The Community Theatre (www.thecommunitytheatre.com ) runs an independent film festival on Wednesday nights, which can be packaged with dinner at the ambitious Bell's Cafe a few doors down. On Saturday mornings, the former ice warehouse at The Point , where Catskill Creek reaches the Hudson, becomes a farmers' and artisans' market with live entertainment.

Cole may have launched the Hudson River School movement, but his protégé, Frederic Edwin Church , carried the celebration of nature to new heights. Literally. Among Church's first sketches were long views of the river from the formidable eastern bank opposite Cedar Grove. Church built a farmhouse cottage on land adjacent to that bluff, and when he eventually purchased the hilltop, he constructed a fanciful Moorish palace, Olana , to drink in the views. (See related story on Page E7.) He was not above tidying up those views, even creating a lake that, as seen from his porch, seems to nestle in a distant bend in the Hudson. Olana is closed for renovations this year (Church's paintings normally hung at Olana are on display in Maine at the Portland Museum of Art through Sept. 10), but the interpretive landscape tour touches on the salient points of how Church bent nature to his will.

Nature isn't always so pliant. Torrential late-June rains washed out the highway (Route 23A) that visitors would normally drive to follow the Hudson art trail. A consultation with State Police revealed that there's a scenic back route around the closure: Route 23 over the north side of Catskill Mountain, then Route 296 south. (Call State Police for updates at 518-622-8600 .) The bypass adds about 20 miles to the drive, but it's worth the time for dramatic scenery and the opportunity to detour through the resort village of Windham and on to Windham Vineyard & Winery (www.windhamvineyard.com) for a tasting on the deck amid the vines.

Although Route 296 connects to Route 23A west of the washout, we still couldn't reach one of the most famous subjects of Hudson River School painters -- the view through Kaaterskill Clove (local parlance for a mountain notch) to 260-foot Kaaterskill Falls . Floods have ravaged both the road and the foot trail through the notch. But we did reach the less picturesque but still dramatic top of the falls by following County Route 18 (North-South Lake Road) to Laurel House Road , where there's a parking lot at the end. Although the main trail (straight ahead) was closed because of erosion, a creekside trail leads about a half mile to the dizzying head of the highest waterfall in New York.

County Route 18 terminates at the North-South Lake Campground . In 1825, Cole sketched around North and South lakes (now joined). Those sketches evolved into his first breakthrough landscape paintings, including the famous ``Lake with Dead Trees." Although the area was remote when Cole visited, it's now an active campground and recreation area within the Catskill Forest Preserve . Families toss softballs and horseshoes and children scamper in and out of the muddy water at North Lake Beach . But the deep forest, rocky hills, and overlooks are still there.

Prepared with walking sticks and sturdy shoes, we set out on the blue-blazed Escarpment Trail to see the heights. After scrambling up a clot of boulders about a quarter mile into the woods, we spied a yearling doe grazing along the trail. She looked up, stepped a few feet into the woods, and went back to chewing. We stared a moment, then kept on walking to the high ledges.

When Cole wrote his manifesto on landscape painting in 1835, he observed, ``The most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive characteristic of American scenery is its wildness." We walked out onto the vertigo-inducing ledge at Artist's Rock, where Cole often sketched, and observed a wooded valley spread out in the distance more than 1,000 feet below -- just like a Hudson River School painting.

All that was missing was a frame.

Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon, Cambridge-based freelance writers, at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

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