Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Painter, Some Books, and His Privy: The Home of Thomas Cole

The Painter and his Privy

On my recent trip to the Hudson Valley this summer, I took an afternoon outing, which led me through the old town of Catskill. On the northeast side of the village, slightly above the ridge where the land meets the Hudson River itself, is a stately old plot of land and a creamsicle yellow house trimmed in white. For years I'd driven by the stately old manor, but only on this fine summer day did I have the opportunity to stop--primarily because it was open! It turned out to be the home of famed Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole, now an historic heritage site named as it was a century and a half ago "Cedar Grove." The day was warm, and I was mostly in the mood for walking around the grounds and scoping out any "bookish" items that may be on display or for sale. Of course, this was what I wanted to report on anyway. I was less concerned with actually taking a tour of the house, especially in this clement and increasingly close weather. Many of these old, historic homes off-gas piney wood and burnt ash smells, colonial-style scents I don't particularly mind, but am not often in the mood to inhale, especially if it's hot out.

At one point of meandering, I walked upon the porch of the very late Mr. Cole. There before me stood the Catskills: the gems of his illustrious imagination, his Xanadu in a slight shade of summer blue (to evoke our late friend and historian Alf Evers). I could imgine that nearly two centuries ago, the view from this porch was clear and the picture of the mountains more vibrant. At the bottom of this photo you may see only slightly a board, which had the outline of the mountains before you and the names of the peaks. Unfortunately, neither the board nor the distance yield an opportune vantage for the contemporary viewer; merely imagination! But this should not dull the experience had at this lovely place. The locale was mightily beautiful; the grounds were swelling with botanical pulchritude, offering honey bees and their apicultural diets a bounty of floral nectars. I rubbed the dirty panes of glass into silver-dollar size circles, then peered into the partially decorated rooms. No books to be seen. Only some old tables, chairs, and dishes. A painting here and there. No books. A possible relief, I thought--I didn't have to spend $8 to go in and find no books! Of course, that's not the real point of historical tourism, but for this ol' blogger, I had other things to tend to. I just went out into the yard and enjoyed the air and green lawnscape and all that good stuff. The first image below is of the main house, where the good artist lived.

The image above I took in the book shop. It was actually a visitor's center, which doubled as a book and gift shop. I thought that I'd take a few photos of the books (of course!), including this one, which only displays a shadowy profile of two books against the old-style paned glass and back yard. But I also took some photos of the books on display--also for sale. Many of the books were more general interest, Hudson River and Catskill Mountain history. Some items dealt with art and the history of the Hudson River School. The shop was located inside of one of the old barn buildings. It had been converted to house the visitor needs of the museum. There was a short video playing, which detailed the life of Thomas Cole and his contemporary world. I'm always curious to see what sort of materials these small museums will have on display, and whether the items are either a worthy effort or even deal with items appropriate to the historic site and time.

Looking at books such as these at left, reminds me of an experience I had back in 2007, when I visited the legendary site of the Battle of Tippecanoe, fought on what is now the small hamlet of Battleground, Indiana, on November 7, 1811. Led by then Governor of the Indiana territory, William Henry Harrison, the US forces fought against the American Indian Confederation, led by Tecumseh. This was an event that was branded into the little minds American school children for decades, but little meaning was ever attached to the phrase "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!" (at least for me) until I came to the very site of the battle. But the reason I speak about this at all, is that when I went to the site of the battle I was overtaken by a moderate sense of disgust and shame, rather than patriotism or pride. There was a certain feeling of vilification of the Native Americans in this hallowed space. The grounds were shadowed by mighty oaks and locust trees ("some of the bullets are still in the trees!" announced one brochure), and the museum and visitors' center highlighted the rural heritage of patriotic decoration and uniformity, rather than historical discussion. So to the point: there were many, many books on Indiana history, American history, and Military history. But almost nothing of local Native American history. There was general "Indian" history. But the gift shop seemed more concerned with selling "native dream catchers" than books about Tecumseh. So, I may be picky and critical on this point, but it is something to consider. I don't mean to put down the Tippecanoe site or museum, because it is indeed a rather extraordinary place that one should see at some point. I'm glad I did. Of course, I was struck by its books in my own curious way.

Now even though books are the focus of my blog entries, I must admit that I was taken by this fine little structure: the painter's privy. Yes: this is the place where the great Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole did his business. Nowadays we know that people "read on the toilet" (I don't know why I wrote that in quotes), but how long has this been going on? Did the Sumerians, Romans, or Greeks read on the pot? Surely, going to the potty in the olden days was something that was less than glamorous. I'm not too sure it has glamor today, but in the period that there was a transition from outdoor outhouses to the era of indoor plumbing, the move to a place and space to "egest" necessitated a change in the architectural surroundings. And yet, this building is more than 150 years old! (Just remember, when a person went to an outhouse, it wasn't a pleasant experience: it was cold or hot, probably wet and mildewed, and stank to the highest of high heavens.) When I poked my head into this most glorious structure, I was surprised at how glamorous it was--really! There were plenty of elevated, flat, and dry surfaces to leave your books and other reading materials around on. And oddly, it appeared to be somewhat of a communal ensemble: there were three distinct toilets in a row. I mean, it's not like you can do it thrice at one time, unless there's something I don't understand about human anatomy. Yet looking at this, I can just imagine the good Thomas Cole, after a long day of dabbing his horse-hair brushes into dollops of vibrant blue, red, and yellow oils and creating the mythic images now super-produced for high school English and Social Studies textbooks, coming home to Cedar Grove, tossing his straw hat to the side, picking up a copy of Byron's poems, and settling himself into his oval-windowed chalet du scat. I'm sure he would have chosen Harper's Weekly, but he died before it came out.


  1. Thomas Cole and his privy! Very entertaining. And what a fertile imagination you have! Hmmm, let me think. I would guess that Cole would be reading something spiritual or scientific in his fine privy.
    You have a great blog!

  2. Thought you might like this poem by Thomas Cole - "The Wild"
    I can imagine him looking out at the majestic Catskills from his porch at Cedar Grove.

    "Friends of my heart, lovers of Nature's works,
    Let me transport you to those wild blue mountains
    That rear their summits near the Hudson's wave.
    Though not the loftiest that begirt the land,
    They yet sublimely rise, and on their heights
    Your souls may have a sweet foretaste of heaven,
    And traverse wide the boundless: From this rock,
    The nearest to the sky, let us look out
    Upon the earth, as the first swell of day
    Is bearing back the duskiness of night.
    But lo! a sea of mist o'er all beneath;
    An ocean shoreless, motionless, and mute.
    No rolling swell is there, no sounding surf;
    Silent and solemn all; the stormy main
    To stillness frozen, while the crested waves
    Leaped in the whirlwind, and the loosen'd foam
    Flew o'er the angry deep.
    See! now ascends
    The Lord of Day, waking with pearly fire
    The dormant depths. See how his glowing breath
    The rising surges kindles : lo! they heave
    Like golden sands upon Sahara's gales.
    Those airy forms disporting from the mass,
    Like winged ships sail o'er the wondrous plain.
    Beautiful vision! Now the veil is rent,
    And the coy earth her virgin bosom bares,
    Slowly unfolding to the enraptured gaze
    Her thousand charms."