Layer by layer, conservator unveils historic work of Thomas Cole
Margaret Saliske, For the Poughkeepsie Journal May 2017 Conservator Margaret Saliske discusses the work she recently undertook at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, NY.
Even for those of us well-versed in the Hudson River School of painting, the first major art movement in America, the discovery was stunning. Hidden under a century of paint in the parlors of the 1815 home of Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School, are elaborately painted borders that frame the walls and constitute the earliest-known example of interior decorative painting by an American artist.
As one of the conservators working on the project, I had the privilege of peeling back that century of paint to reveal this landmark work by one of America’s most influential artists. Working with historic paint specialist Matthew Mosca, who discovered the elaborate borders, we developed a painstaking process for removing the layers of “over paint.” Inch by inch, I exposed Cole’s work until it extended throughout the two most prominent rooms in the house.
The 1815 home of Thomas Cole (1801-1848) is the centerpiece of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, Greene County – an hour north of Poughkeepsie. The site has dramatically enhanced its buildings in recent years. Last summer, it unveiled the reconstructed 1846 “New Studio,” a majestic building designed by Cole that can now house art exhibitions in climate-controlled space, including works on loan from major museums.
In May, the site unveiled a new immersive installation in the two parlors that combines technology and meticulous historic restoration. Through hidden audio and moving-graphics presentations, visitors can hear the thoughts of Thomas Cole and the historic conversations that took place in those rooms, where American art was born.
The carefully researched restoration, directed by leading historic interiors experts Jean Dunbar and Carrie Feder, has transformed those rooms to Cole’s original design. It was that restoration that revealed the painted borders.
The initial discovery was several inches square. Matthew then found similar examples in both parlors. Working from a scaffold near the ceilings of the rooms, I then began peeling back layer upon layer of paint – six to nine layers in all – making sure that as the layers were removed, I was not disturbing any of the original artwork.
That’s the most difficult part: ensuring that in exposing the original work you do not inadvertently remove the material you are trying to conserve. As I removed that final coat of paint, I had the responsibility – and the thrill – of knowing that the next layer was the work of this preeminent master.
Once the borders, which are between 15 and 16 inches high in both rooms, were exposed, I applied a reversible barrier coat to protect the original artwork and then began “in-painting.” That’s an arduous process in which I in-paint only where Cole’s work is missing. I do not paint over his work; I paint next to it to fill in gaps so that the borders appear complete.
The key is to give viewers a coherent read of the artwork, knowing that they will see it from across the room and at an angle, since it’s near the ceiling. It’s the view from that perspective, rather than from inches away as I conserve it, that is so important. All materials used in the process are reversible, so that in the future conservators will have an option to revisit and study the treatment.
Visitors to the site can now see those borders – and Cole’s interior design – for the first time in a century. They have the chance to walk into the restored parlors and experience them, not from behind velvet ropes but as visitors in his day would have. The restoration extends from carpets and other floor coverings to wall colors to the now-famous borders.
Visitors can also see Cole’s 1839 “Old Studio” building and a new exhibition titled “Sanford R. Gifford in the Catskills” in the “New Studio” building. Gifford (1823-1880) grew up in Hudson, was inspired by Cole’s work to become a landscape painter, and later emerged as a leader of the Hudson River School.
Thomas Cole’s legacy still influences American art today. The work that I did on his painted borders reveals an entirely new dimension of that legacy and literally sheds new light on it.
Margaret Saliske, a conservator based in Hudson, has worked with many historic sites in New York and across the nation. Ms. Saliske has also completed conservation work at HAHS member site Olana, and is currently working on a project at Chesterwood, member and administrator of the HAHS program.