Thomas Cole Mountain and the Catskill Artist Remembered

The mass of Thomas Cole Mountain looking east from Camel's Hump
Average read time 9 min

“We who were not permitted to see our friend laid in his grave, and to repay his remains the last tokens of respect before they were forever removed from our sight, are assembled to pass a few moments in speaking of his genius and his virtues. He was one of the founders of the Academy whose members I address, as well as one of its most illustrious ornaments.”

In his funeral oration delivered before the National Academy of Design, New York, May 4, 1848 William Cullen Bryant described in exceptional detail the life of his dear friend and celebrated artist Thomas Cole. As you climb Thomas Cole Mountain, spend some time thinking about his grand works, Falls of Kaaterskill (1826), View on the Catskill – Early Autumn (1837), His Master piece The Clove, Catskills (1827) and some of his spiritual works which he might have said were his greatest.

A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning (1844)
A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning (1844) Thomas Cole [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Of course there is Kindred Spirits (1849) by Asher B. Durand which immortalizes Cole with his companion William Cullen Bryant who delivered his eulogy at the National Academy of Design. Arguably no other piece of art captures the spirit of the Catskills than this does.

Kindred Spirits by Asher Brown Durand
Kindred Spirits by Asher Brown Durand [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cole was born February 1, 1801 at Bolton-le-Moore, Lancashire, England. He was the son of a cotton manufacturer, one of eight children and immigrated to the United States on July 3, 1819. Cole was one of the principal founders of the Hudson River School of Landscape Painting and is remembered as one of our country’s most distinguished artists. However Thomas Cole was much more than that; he was a devoted lover of nature, adventurer, a poet, eloquent writer, musician, teacher, friend, husband and servant of God.

The Mountain that is distinguished with his name is situated in the main bulk of the Blackhead Range, which contains the 3rd, 4th and 5th highest peaks in the Catskills. Along this ridge just southwest of Thomas Cole is Camel’s Hump which just tops out over 3,500 feet but does not meet the criteria for a separate mountain as its elevation is less then the 250 feet requisite.

Blackhead Range
Blackhead Range from Hunter fire tower: Right to left’ Blackhead, Black Dome Thomas Cole, Camel’s Hump, and Windham High Peak behind on the Escarpment.

The climb to Thomas Cole can be approached from the west beginning at Elmer Barnum Road or over Black Dome Mountain from the east. The route from the west is a stiff climb to a prominent bump named Caudal then becomes easier for a bit and then climbs again to Camel’s Hump offering superb views, Cole would have enjoyed this spot.

Looking back at Camel's Hump from the Ridge on Thomas Cole Mountain
Looking back at Camel’s Hump from the Ridge on Thomas Cole Mountain

Cole works embodied the Catskills. Many of his life works were devoted to painting its sensual features and he did them without equal. In his youth, young Thomas was a child that was already innocently grooming himself for his destiny. Many an hour would be spent walking with his sister Sarah in the forests as Thomas played the Flute and she sang cheerful tunes. These hours spent were his favorite early memories and his love for music and nature was set for life.

A life and a road on your way to visit Thomas Cole

As Mountains in the Catskills are named many roads are named after people that lived in the area, Elmer Barnum Road is one of them. The Barnum name was common in these parts. Martin and Carrie Barnum were two individuals that were full of love and deep with the spirit of God. They lived in an old farm house on Barnum Road in Big Hollow and had four children.

Their life was a hard one starting with their eldest son who was born blind and past away at the age of 27. The couple’s second son was afflicted with epilepsy, but otherwise lived a long life. The third child, a sweet young daughter, was early for school one rainy day and the teacher would not let her and a few other students in. She became ill and developed pneumonia and died at 12 years old.

Elmer Barnum was the youngest child and was born July 2, 1898 almost 90 years after Thomas Cole came to the United States. Elmer had a fear of talking which he would have until his seventies. He would only speak around family or at school but would never speak around strangers. He would express himself by nodding, laughing or written note. He would not talk after passing the post office or the bridge in town. He did however write eloquent letters and express his thoughts in great detail by pen. He was a fun loving person who loved parties and who would enjoy people and laughing. In later years this quiet man would ride his Harley Davidson motorcycle to work. Elmer died at the age of 79 and rests in the Maplecrest Cemetery.

Thomas Cole the artist

Thomas Cole
Thomas Cole [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In July of 1819 Cole’s family arrived in Philadelphia where his Father opened a dry goods store. During the ensuing years Cole lived in many towns and cities that would shape him, through triumph but more often adversity, into the person we celebrate as Thomas Cole the artist and man. During the years of 1819 -1825 Thomas lived and visited many places including Philadelphia, PA, Steubenville and several other Ohio towns, a short time in Pittsburg, PA and a trip to St. Eustatius, West Indies. Each one of these places would offer him experiences that would sculpt his person and his art. However it was not until Cole came to New York in 1825 that he happened to find his fame as a painter.

In New York Cole painted some lesser landscape pieces that were received well. A local businessman enjoyed them and allowed several of them to be exhibited in his storefront. By this he sold several paintings for a small sum but this generated a friendship which provided a means to continue his art. George W. Breun, an honorary member of the National Academy of Design had seen and purchased one of Cole’s works in the store window. He was so impressed with Cole he contracted with and sent him to the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys to sketch. Because of this he produced “Lake of the Dead Trees” a view of South Lake from the overflow between North and South Lakes and “Falls of Kaaterskill”.

Cole taking his sketches and developed paintings of several of them lead to his fame. Because of these works he met Trumbull, Dunlap and Durand, eminent artists of the times. Trumbull, much older than Cole, remarked about this genius “Young man, you surprise me, at your age, to paint like this. You have done what, with all my years of experience, I am unable to do.” Thomas Cole was now a known artist and had his introduction to the land that would become his home, the Catskills.

Cole’s fame was increasing with each sample of work, but it was not in his nature to be arrogant about his works, only humble. In fact in 1826 he spends a winter with George William Featherstonhaugh at Duanesburg, NY and was treated with the utmost cruelty while there. However, he decides to stay the winter as not to give his friends (or insult his host) in the city chance to think of him as exceedingly sensitive or fickle in his predicament. He stays the winter and suffers the harsh treatment without complaint.

For Cole the Catskills meant freedom, the freedom to now express his deep love for nature and the deep poetic earnings that played out on his canvas. He matured with prodigious swiftness. Each painting moved to a greater depth of artistic study. Some so grand they were, like many with his genius, ahead of their time and were criticized by some. Nevertheless in his humbleness there was a sense of greatness that would drive him. He was inspired by the natural world and what it had to offer him, nature was his quintessence subject and he ministered to her well.

When Cole first came to these mountains he found them irresistible and eventually would spend three seasons painting here, and keeping one in New York City. He found hospitality at a home just outside the town of Catskill. This place in due course would become his permanent home. At this dwelling he would court and fall in love with, and then on the 22nd of November, 1836 wed Maria Barton. He would then be fully committed to the mountains and make the town of Catskill his permanent home.

Cole during this period was growing spiritually and creating art that was deep with religious meaning, what was called “a higher style of landscape”. His first examples of this were “The Garden of Eden” and “The Expulsion from the Garden”. Many more masterpieces were to come. In 1842 after his return from his second trip to Europe he decided to receive baptism and was baptized by Rev. Louis L. Noble, Cole’s friend and ultimate biographer.

Thomas Cole was a man of many virtues and left us a legacy that we can gaze at with much fondness. As hikers of today we share a kinship with Cole, which is his love for the Mountains in which we walk. He loved them no more or no less then each one of us does, but he did celebrate them for us. Cole was to become more than just an artist of these mountains. He became a teacher to many, including great artists such as Fredrick Church.

Cole was also a friend to many and a beloved member of his community, both art and humanity. Cole designed a local church in the town of Catskill which still stands and honors his family with a stained glass window. He was a naturalist and an advocate for wildlife, as he could not justify killing animals for sport and spoke out in opposition to this. He was a devoted son and brother throughout his entire life. His love and dedication to his wife is evident in the home they kept and the loving letters he wrote while away from her. Most of all he was a man of deep religious conviction, he lived this out in his writings, his art work, his relationships with all, and most completely his personal relationship with his master and the great artist in heaven, The Lord.

On February 8, 1848 Cole felt the call of death near and felt the need to be close to his Father, he asked to receive his Lord’s Supper and exhausted from the service lay back on his bed and said, “I want to be quiet.” These were Thomas’s last earthly words. At eight o’clock he expired, at age forty-seven. The people of Catskill mourned their friend, businesses closed, the art community, was shocked. The world a little poorer.

On reaching the summit of Thomas Cole Mountain

On reaching Thomas Cole’s summit (the summit is actually off the trail to the north) no vast view presents itself. In fact the once heralded outlook that was on this mountain is now very nearly overgrown and only the hiker who is tall or standing on tipped toe may get a glimpse out into the valley.

However if one lingers and listens at this spot or anywhere on the summit you can almost hear Cole’s brush stroke moving through the trees. The gray rocks covered with the warm shades of green moss and the small alpine flowers growing and pushing toward the sun color the forest floor with their splendor will cheer the hiker.

Chris taking a break on the "summit" of Thomas Cole Mountain
Chris taking a break on the view-less “summit” of Thomas Cole Mountain

Each fern glistens as the dew drips from its leaves and the small spider webs that reach perilously from branch to branch will swing with even the lightest breeze. The balsam fir standing tall over and above all in this sub-alpine island in the sky, they hold sway as king in this place. Only God’s sky stands above.

When Guyot came to this place he named it Mount Kimball in honor of his assistant in which he wrote; “Most of the aneroid observations I owe to H. Kimball, the most indefatigable and skillful mountain climber of the Catskills.” Names change, I’m glad this one did.