Painting with the Hudson River School part 2
Updated: Aug 14, 2022
Folks, I am just arriving in NY and getting ready for a couple weeks of painting in places the Hudson River School painted 250 years ago. Below is the second part of the short story (first part was last week's blog) The ending will be next week's blog. Please let me know what you think or if you have any suggestions...
(continued from last week)
Oddly, it looked like five women dressed in costumes right out of 1800’s; long white dresses, shawls, parasols and hats, bustles in the back of the two closest to me. Four of the women were engrossed in conversation with the fifth. She had a girlish grin, her hair tightly tucked into a bonnet on her head and she held a ribbon in one hand. “Watch this!” She giggled, pulling hard on the ribbon and causing her long skirts to ride up like a window shade made of hula-hoops to expose a pair of trouser-covered legs. The women gasped, and tittered. “They are so manly!” one exclaimed, “did you have to make them yourself?”
Just then, I emerged from the tree line and caught the eye of hoop-skirted woman. She gasped, her hand released the ribbon which held the hoops up around her waist causing a whooshing sound. The hand fluttered up to her mouth and alighted across it in a look of shock and awe. I glanced behind me thinking something must have followed me from the forest. The other women followed her gaze and turned toward me, all expressing the same amazed response as the hoop-skirted woman. I stopped in my tracks.
We regarded each other.
I was delighted by the detail in their costumes, some women wore gloves, some carried small purses on their wrists, the hoop-skirted woman had a large bulky wood box next to her on the ground. The five stared at me with mouths agape. I began to feel awkward when one cleared her throat and said; “Good day! You must be visiting from California!”
The other women composed themselves and nodded in agreement. “Yes, welcome!” said one, and “Are those dungarees?” said hoop-skirt woman, pointing at my jeans. I glanced down and was about to answer her when she clapped excitedly and said “oh goody! I’ve been wanting to see some for a long time to get an idea of the pattern! I thought only men were able to purchase these! How scandalous!”
Before I could say a word, the group rushed me and were touching my clothing, one was behind me looking at my backpack and two others were fingering the straps. “What odd garments!” one remarked, “the feel is like leather but the texture is cloth! Said the one holding my back pack strap. “Do tell where you had these handsome trousers made!” Said hoop-skirt woman.
“Hi,” I said sheepishly, not comfortable being the center of the prank. “Are you a group of LARPERS?” I asked. I had heard of people doing Civil War reenactments in costumes, but not like this, in the woods, in the middle of nowhere.
The women released my clothing and stepped away from me, looking at me suspiciously now. “Are we what?” Said hoop-skirt woman. She seemed indignant.
“Are you doing a performance? Play-acting?” I explained.
“Heaven’s no!” said a parasol-toting woman, we are artists!
Just then, a man’s voice boomed from the rock out-cropping above our heads. “Have you ladies regained your modesty yet?” A top hat with a gaunt face peered down at us. The man was murmuring under his breath, “can’t keep up, can’t dress sensibly, can’t stick an umbrella spike into the ground-GOOD HEAVENS!” His eyes alighted upon me. “What is that?!” He rudely gestured toward me. His eyes widened with amazement.
The women all turned toward me.
Hoop skirt woman was closest to me and turned to face me, contorted herself into some sort of quick curtsey on one high-heeled boot.
“I’m Ms. Eliza Greatorex, she said as she rose, that rude man is Ash. What would your name be?” She looked expectantly at me.
“I. I’m Sara.” I stammered, nodding my head as if it were a curtsey.
The woman next her followed suit, quick dip of one leg while looking down and said “I’m Fanny, Fanny Palmer,” as she rose back to her feet. I tilted my head in her direction, trying to be polite as well. It suddenly dawned on me that I had heard these names before-in grad school. I had studied Fanny Palmer, and Eliza Greatorex! They were historical figures! How could these women possibly be who they say they are?
The woman next to her glanced to the woman at her side, they nodded to each other and both dipped at the same time in a curtsey. “My name is also Sarah, Sarah Cole, and this is my-…-friend Laura, my brother Tom is already ahead of us.”
I acknowledge both women with a warm smile and nod.
“Where the devil did you come from?” snarled the impatient man above me.
“Ash! Don’t be rude” Said the fifth woman. “Hi Sara, I’m Mary,” she said reaching out and taking my hand lightly-no curtsey from her. “Can’t you see the poor thing is wet, and obviously not used to the climate!”
Mary reached her hand up toward Ash who pulled her up the rock face while whispering “But what is she wearing?” Mary gave him a look on her way up, then dusted herself off and said sprightly to the group; “Very well now, hand me the boxes.”
The women all looked around their feet and gathered their wooden boxes, handing them up to Mary and Ash. Eliza was next. She eyed me, specifically my jeans, gave a yank to her ribbon and lifted her hoop skirts up to her waist. “Tally ho!” she said gamely and climbed the rock face quickly.
Next was Sarah who was assisted by Laura, who then was pulled up by Sara. Fanny and I looked at each other. She smiled” getting up is easy, the skirts rise up easy enough. Unfortunately, they stay up when you want to come back down!” She winked at me as she scrambled up the rocks deftly. I followed the group. They all watched me warily.
From the top of the cliff, I could see the large flat boulders leading to the edge of the overlook. This was painter’s rock! I finally made it. There were two men out on the edge of the rock with a magnificent view behind them. One sat at an easel, the other was bent over a small notebook. As we approached, I was torn between the lovely view and the men in perfect brown suits, as immaculately costumed as the women. They sported beaver skin hats, neck ties, jackets, and gaunt faces with neatly-trimmed beards and mustaches.
“Sara,” said Eliza slowly as if she were speaking to someone who didn’t speak the same language, “this is Mr. Thomas Cole, and Mr. William Bryant.” Both men looked up surprised, scrambled to their feet and tipped their hats to me.
“How do you do?” They said in unison. I clumsily curtsied at them, and responded “Pleased to meet you,” They shot side-ways glances at each other. I bit my lip, could this really be THE Thomas Cole? Founder of the Hudson River School, and is that really the poet William Bryant, it’s muse and main proponent?
“Are you from California?” Eliza broke in, “do women in California get to wear dungarees too?”
She looked at me eagerly. I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what was going on. I felt like there must be a hidden camera somewhere. I looked around nervously, not really knowing what to say.
“I’m familiar with your works,” I blurted toward Thomas, and William at the same time. Thinking that if they are actors, they are damn good ones! I had seen portraits of both men and these guys were the spitting-image.
The two men looked at each other in surprise. “Really?”
“How could you possibly have heard about me in California?” Thomas cocked an eyebrow at me, William leaned in toward me. “Read my book, did you?” his fingers stroked his full white beard as he spoke.
“Yes, I said, blushing, “I read them all!” I had also read his editorials and anything else I could get my hands on. I was a student of Transcendentalism and he was God to my class of grad students!
“What do you mean, all?” He looked angry now, “I’ve only written one! You’ve confused me with someone else.” He was spry and wiry, looking older than the others gathered.
“Oh then you mean your book called Poems” I was searching my Grad School brain archives to remember what his first book was titled.
Both eyebrows raised, “Then you have read it! Well, I hope there will be others, I am writing now, but since I took the helm at the Evening Post, I don’t get much time for my own work anymore.” He kicked at the ground as he spoke, I was guessing that the time I was currently in must be 1825-1840 because his next book would be published in 1841.
“How do you know all this and who are you?” Asked Thomas. He was very direct and gazed openly at me when he spoke, his emotions were right there for all to see, he was a man with substance and heart, direct and honest.
“I’m a painter as well, and I read poetry, that’s all.” I said, pulling my back pack over my shoulder and hoisting it to the ground. I bent to unzip the backpack and release my aluminum box easel from its dark interior. The whole group scurried over and formed a circle around me to get a better view. I was conscious that my easel was out-of-place in the Victorian era, with its telescoping legs, aluminum body and compact, light-weight frame.
“May I touch it?” Eliza pushed her way to the front. I liked her, she had dark inquisitive eyes, and, like Thomas, was without guile. She always said what she meant, and wasn’t afraid to speak up. The others backed away as if the easel might be radioactive. Eliza pulled the leg, marveling at how smoothly it clicked into place. She lifted the top of the easel exposing the tubes of paint and brushes inside.
The whole group gasped in unison, Ash exclaimed “What the devil?” Thomas reached over and plucked a tube of Alizarin Crimson from the box. He held it with awe in his palm.
“I’ve never seen pigment in bladders like this! You must tell me how you did it, or where you purchased them!” He exclaimed.
“I bought them at the art supply store in Kingston.” I said absently still rummaging through my pack for the canvases. Then I realized that Kingston probably didn’t have an art supply store in this time. The group looked quizzically at each other.
By then I had located my canvas panels and was loading one into the upright easel, again the group drew a collective breath and took it all in as if they were witnessing a miracle. I positioned my easel on the edge of the rock looking out over the spectacular view. Eliza had been fondling my brushes and pens, she reluctantly released them as I moved the easel.
“Right then,” she said resolutely, “let’s get to it while we still have the light!” She whooshed her skirts and was fumbling with a heavy box, getting a thin wooden structure from it. She unbolted each leg, then pulled the length of wood sistered to it down before bolting it back in place. This was a cumbersome and unstable easel. I could see why mine was attracting so much attention. The others all had similar stick-thin easels. We wouldn’t use these easels for display in modern times. They would barely hold up to a breeze.
Inside Eliza’s box were small jars with pigments, sparse brushes, and small ink containers with pen nibs. Several small wooden panels coated in gesso were tucked into one corner. It must have weighed 30 pounds and she had managed it without a complaint. I was impressed. I remembered from my studies that she was a widowed mother of three who managed to make a living from her painting at a time when women were not allowed to attend art schools with men, or even accepted into the same galleries. She was a hard-working woman who was successful against all odds.
The other two women had to be Sarah Cole, Tom’s sister who never married. Now I understood why, as I watched her help her friend who had to be Laura Woodward, unpack their gear. They worked together as a team, occasionally assisting each other is a loving way, sisterly, yet intimate. Laura would move to Florida in a few years and make the Everglades famous through her paintings. She would always be associated with the Hudson River School. Sarah was best known for her botanical paintings and China teacups. I had just seen some of her work yesterday in the collection of Cedar Grove, Cole’s family house.
And there was Fanny Palmer, the only female lithographer with Currier and Ives. She was already set up and sketching. No easel for her. She used only a campstool with three legs and sat primly with her bustle sticking out over the stool. She was sketching the rock ledge into a sketchbook.
Ash must be short for Asher B. Durand, and the Mary who is with him has to be Mary Jo Waters. History recorded her role as his star student, but here they behaved more like a married couple. He seemed deferential to her, she seemed unafraid to question him. He was setting up her easel for her, she was setting up his campstool very close to hers. It struck me how much of a subtext there was in the group, as if all the people were related in some way, yet all were amicable friends and colleagues. I felt suddenly honored to be among them. This had to be a dream! (to be continued next week...)