• Shawn Dell Joyce artist

Painting with the Hudson River School Part 3 (ending)

This is the final installment (part 3 of 3) of a short piece of historical fiction from my upcoming trilogy of stories based on the Hudson River School, Transcendentalism, and some of the women who made the movement but were overlooked by history. The first two installments are the two previous blogs....


(continues from last week)


Thomas Cole's "Catskill Mountain House: Four Elements"

The group fell into comfortable silence broken only by the rustling of skirts, and the scratching of pencils and metal nibs on paper and canvas. The moment enveloped us all, the breeze gently blowing through the hills in the distance and rustling the leaves around us, the cool dampness in the air from fall and the rain, the smell of the earthy dirt and leaf mold, and the sounds of birds twittering, and squirrels scampering. It was otherworldly beautiful.


Once sketching was done, the painters began blocking in their paintings. I could see Thomas Cole’s painting from where I was set up and recognized it right away. The big shape of the mountain, the hills behind it, rock formations solid and blocky in the foreground. I couldn’t help but to block in the same scene on my own canvas. How rare an opportunity to get to paint with someone who’s work you studied intimately-down to the brushstrokes. If this was a dream, I was going to make the most of it.


Eliza was first to speak and break the silence.


“Look! There in the distance, a fire is breaking out again!” I followed her gaze and off in the valley was a small fire, a plume of smoke billowing up into the air and joining the dark clouds still lingering from this morning’s storm.


“The hand of man wreaking its havoc, no doubt!” Huffed William. “More fuel for the furnaces!”

I realized he was speaking of the old stone furnaces dotting the Hudson and how the forests were practically denuded during his time in an effort to fuel America’s need for iron and trains.


“Not that one,” Noted Thomas, “that’s not a furnace, the shape of it is all wrong. It appears to be a bark fire. I’m going to paint it into my sketch here to give people a sense of the brutality of man.”


“Bark fire?” I asked “What is that?”


The group looked up at me for a pause, and Eliza broke in and responded.

“It’s the tanners. They strip the bark from the Hemlock trees in the forest and leave it in a pile. It’s stupid really. Tannins in the bark are used for tanning leather, but they are also highly volatile and will catch fire in the sunlight. A whole day’s work goes up in a puff of smoke and the tree is left to die.”


“Sad really.” Intoned Sarah, “Many of us are trying to replant the Hemlocks along the Hudson. They are beginning to disappear.”


“All for the leather coats and shoes worn by THOSE PEOPLE,” Thomas said motioning behind us. Eliza giggled and whispered conspiratorially into my ear…


“He’s talking about the Mountain House. He feels it spoils the view and the people who visit there are so busy drinking and dancing that they scarcely notice the pristine wilderness being burned down around them. Are you staying there as well?”


I had forgotten all about the Catskill Mountain House. It had long since been torn down and all that I knew of it was from grainy old photos and a stone foundation that remains on site. My heart skipped a beat in my chest at the prospect of being able to see it in its glory. I smiled back at her, grateful for her insight and warmth, and shook my head to answer her question. In another age, we would be close friends I sensed.


I stood up and casually walked toward Thomas, unbearably curious to see which of his three famous paintings he was making from this viewpoint. I could see that this was a study and judging from the big shapes he already painted, and the fire in the lower right edge, I took this to be a preliminary work for his painting “Catskill Mountain House.” Curious that it wound up being titled after the very thing he was ranting about while painting it!


William was studying the piece thoughtfully, stroking his beard again with his hand.

“You almost have the four elements represented here with the fire. I suggest a monumental vortex in the sky, over here…” He motioned toward the top left of the canvas. “Something dark and stormy like a prophesy of the encroachment of industry on the natural world.”

Thomas was nodding in agreement.

It was clear that William’s opinion mattered greatly to Thomas.


William looked up as I approached. “What are your thoughts on this Ms. Sara?”


“It is truly sublime,” I nodded in agreement.” Would be quite powerful to show the same landscape through time, as in before the hand of man, during man’s occupation and then after the fall of man.”


Thomas and William again shot each other a sidewards glance. “How did you know I was thinking of exactly such a series?” Thomas looked directly at me, leveled his gaze as if he were searching for something in my eyes.


“I did not. I smiled politely. “I just admire your work and would like to see more of it.”


“Aye” said William, “We all would.” Tom here is a master of allegory and thinks so deeply about his landscapes that he spends most of his painting time in philosophical reflection instead of actually painting!” There was a tittering of giggles from the group behind me.


“Ah, let’s ask the teacher, shall we?” William caught Eliza’s eye as she looked up from her work. He motioned her over. She obliged. “Tell me dear, what do you think of this composition?” He queried, motioning to Thomas’ painting.


“Compositionally, it needs something in the right corner to offset the smoke and fire.” She said, arching an eyebrow and studying the painting. I was taken with how beautiful she was at that very moment. Also,” she continued, “this whole foreground is too light, it needs to be darker. Remember that lighter colors need to be in the background, darker colors in the foreground to create the illusion of space and perspective.”


She was right on. I could see it as soon as she said it. That’s exactly what his painting needed in order to become the famous masterpiece it eventually became.


“Are you their teacher?” I said, turning to Eliza.


She let out a peal of golden laughter, joined quickly by the men, who were probably laughing at the lunacy of studying under a female master artist since women were not allowed to study with men in this time period. “No dear girl (which she pronounces as “gull,” as if she were European), “I am a school teacher, I teach in a girl’s school during the year.” Her eyes twinkled a bit when she spoke to me. I was completely in awe.


Eliza was one of the few women whom history would record as being successful in their painting careers. She was able to later support her family from the sale of her work, mostly pen and ink drawings, if I remembered correctly. How difficult must it have been on her to watch her male colleagues who were less skilled, and less studied, achieve great success while she sat unnoticed on the sidelines, continuing to cheer them on.


I instantly gained a new respect for her, and the other women in the party. Glancing around, I realized that I could only bring to mind Sarah Cole’s botanical works, none of the other women really gained historic mention at the level of the men in the group, yet all were clearly equal in skill. Some, like Eliza and Laura, were quite superior painters to the men in the group.


For a moment, I flashed on my own life and career. I was successful. I had gallery representation and made a modest living from my work. Many of the men I competed with in plein air events had gone to greater fame and fortune than myself, but I always felt like my prize was still on the horizon, still a future possibility. I wondered if that’s how these women felt. That someday there would be a cosmic equalizing and history would also become herstory.


“Is that more pleasing to your eye?” Asked Thomas, looking at his mentor William. Eliza had returned to her work. I glanced down at Thomas’ painting.


There it was. The dark storm parading across the sunlit fall scenery, and darkening everything in its path. Leading the eye directly to the bark fire. A vortex of dark clouds in the sky-the perfect allegory for the destruction happening before our eyes.


“Now you’ve done it!” William said approvingly. “This is it! The four elements perfectly represented in one painting. Now if only we can exhibit this before Bruen snatches it up!”

Bruen, I remembered, was an early patron who paid for Thomas and company to tour and paint the Catskills. They would be staying at the Mountain House, and would be setting the philosophy behind the Hudson River School movement during this trip. The gravity of what was happening before my eyes struck me.


How on earth did I come to witness this magic moment when history was made? Why me? How am I important at all in this?


I wrestled with these questions and more as I returned to my painting. I struggled through the process, half in a dream, half in reality as I painted. Very conscious of the group around me engaged in their private chatter and not really focused on me at that moment. I was pushing my painting through the “ugly stage” where all you see are the big abstract shapes and blocks of color.


I couldn’t help but be distracted by the setting. I could easily see Thomas’s painting taking form on the easel when he leaned back on his stool. William beside him, scribbling feverishly in a notebook with quill. Eliza was deeply engrossed in her work. I watched as her eyes flickered from the scene, to her palette, to her painting in perfect concentration. She was in her element. The others were similarly engaged, some quietly whispering as they worked.


I leaned into my own painting and began to focus on edges, carving out blocks of sunlit fall foliage on the distant hills, and losing the shape of the distant hills against the clouds so that the shapes began to mimic each other.



My mind racing; everything happens for a reason! What is the reason for me being transported back in time to this place at this moment?


I looked at William and Thomas, engrossed in each other’s work. Was I supposed to influence them in some way? I looked at Sarah and Laura, both quietly enjoying each other’s company. Ash and Mary were equally engrossed. I couldn’t find a thing in my memory or mind that could possibly be of any help to them. I was at a loss.


Soon the reverie of the afternoon gave way to evening, and the sun began to settle in the West. Several of the painters had long since finished and put their works away, including Eliza. Thomas and William were still arguing about the rocks in the foreground and whether their shape should mimic the shape of the hill so closely.


Fanny piped up; “We must return if we are to prepare for dinner this evening.” Her voice pierced the quiet. The women began shuffling their paints back into the wooden boxes. Ash helped Mary up from the tiny stool and brushed the leaves from the back of her skirt. I began to pack up, turning my wet painting backwards on the easel to hold it in place. My actions caught Eliza’s gaze.


“Oh, Sara, you simply MUST join us for dinner at our table!” She said, lightly touching my arm. I caught her gaze, and for a second, something flickered between us. I was attracted to her at a soul level, something in my very cells was magnetically attracted to something in her. I wanted nothing more than to join her. I needed to join her. Not just because of the body, but because I felt a pull, a tug. Like my purpose for being here was related to her.


“Of course!” I smiled at her, “I’d love to join you.” We all packed up and headed back down the trail towards where I had come in. I thought to myself while we were walking…If I stayed here with them, it would be fascinating, I could see history in the making. But, there’s no guarantee that I could ever return to my own time and life. I would be giving up my career as an artist. Would it be worth it? Is my career and life worth the possibility of helping future generations of women artists and the founders of the Hudson River School?


As we trudged toward the clearing in the woods where I first came upon the group, a thought formed in my head. I had to go back to the stone hut in the woods. I couldn’t stay here. This was not my place or my time. I was a problem here, not a solution. It was clear to me.


“This is where I must take my leave of you!” I announced. The whole group looked up startled, and stopped in their tracks.

“What? Won’t you be joining us for dinner?” Eliza intoned, her dark eyes searching mine, she moved quickly towards me, touching my forearm.

“I must return to my own hotel to change into more appropriate attire.” I smiled at her, knowing in my heart I was lying, but that it was for the best. She looked relieved.


“Very well then,” she curtsied politely again, “until then.” I fumbled in my pocket and took her hand as she moved away, pressing two small objects into her palm.

She pulled her hand back, and secretly opened her palm, revealing the ball point pen, and felt tipped pen that would soon change the direction of her career and make her wildly rich. Her dark eyes found mine, and were smiling with a deep recognition. I turned away and disappeared into the brush. The sounds of the group becoming fainter behind me.


Quickly I found my way back to the small stone dome, and found the opening. Inside, nothing had changed. I turned once in a circle, looking at the whole perimeter but absolutely everything was exactly as I had originally found it. I stepped back outside.


At first I thought nothing had happened.

Then I realized that it was quieter. Less birds, less rustling, less dense air, less life. I knew instantly I returned to my own time. There was clipped grass, and gravel. Soon I came upon the trail and a blue blaze tacked to a small tree.


It had to be a dream! I must’ve imagined the whole thing! Like Rip Van Winkle, I fell asleep and this whole experience was nothing more than a flight of fantasy. My thoughts raced as my boots found the path and followed it back toward the asphalt parking lot and my car. Couldn’t possibly be real! I sat in my car just as the last glimmers of the sun began to glint on the clouds in Cole’s famous sky.


I swung open the door and quickly Googled Eliza Greatorex. And there it was…”made rich in her later years by a series of books published of her pen and ink sketches of the Hudson River valley.” And I smiled, my purpose was made clear.

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