By Rev. Charles Rockwell
Transcribed by Arlene Goodwin
Thomas Cole—His Early Life—His first visit to the Mountains, and Attachment to them—Paintings of them—Cols. Trumbull, Dunlap. Durand—Cole’s Early Fame—Bryant—Sunrise on the Mountain—Poetry—Windham—Rev. Mr. Stimson—Trip to Windham—A Rude Hotel—A Storm in the Mountains—The Bewilderment—Fearful Peril and Final Escape—A Dream—Poetry—A Trip to the Mountains—The Lakes—Scenery there—Durand’s painting of Rip Van Winkle—Excursion of High Peak—American and Swiss Scenery compared—Platterkill Clove.
There is no one whose name, either as author or artist, is more prominent, in connection with the Catskill Mountains and the country around, than Thomas Cole, N. A., who has left behind him, as enduring memorials of his fame, "The Course of Empire," "The Voyage of Life," and other paintings of high artistic merit and fame. Mr. Cole was a native of England, but came to this country, with his father’s family, when nineteen years of age. After enduring the privations of poverty for years, as an engraver, a traveling portrait painter, and in other callings and pursuits in life, he, at length, by the force of his talents, genius, industry, perseverance, and patient and enduring toil and study, became one of the most eminent and successful landscape painters in the world. To his warm personal friend, pastor, and biographer, Rev. Louis L. Noble, formerly of Catskill, we are indebted for a full, able, and interesting record of the life, labors, personal character, and success of his profession, of Mr. Cole.
As Cole early visited the Catskill Mountains, and afterwards, for many years, on to the end of life, had his family residence and studio near the village of Catskill, in full view of all the higher summits of the range, he had, from the first, a peculiar interest in them, and an ardent and enthusiastic attachment to them. Of his first excursion up the Hudson River, his biographer thus writes:--"From the moment when his eyes first caught the rural beauties clustering around the cliffs of Weehawken, and glanced up the distance of the Palisades, Cole’s heart had been wandering in the Highlands, and nestling in the bosom of the Catskills. It is needless to say that he followed its impulses, at his earliest liberty, in the Autumn ensuing."
"If it be interesting to know what were his first impressions of the romantic scenery now made familiar to art by his pencil, it is certain that they were even more lively than he had himself anticipated. It charmed his eye, and took his soul captive. What his affections so readily embraced, only became dearer to him the more he enjoyed it. Wherever he subsequently traveled, whether among the lakes and hills of England, the Alban heights, or the Alps, up the sides of the Apennines, or of Etna, along the seashore, down the Rhone or the Rhine, he always turned to the Hudson, and the summits that pierce its clouds, and darken its blue skies, with the strength and tenderness of a first love. It is questionable whether after this, he ever painted a picture, with the exception, perhaps, of his European landscapes, which does not bear witness to some feature peculiar to this land of his heart."
Of the paintings of Cole after his return from this excursion to the Catskill Mountains, one was "A Lake with Dead Trees," suggested, perhaps, by one of the lakes near the Mountain House, with the dead trees around it, many such being found there, as relics and memorials of the wildly raging fires which, from time to time, sweep over the mountains; and of which we had a fearfully sublime example during the dry summer of 1864, when the flames reached within a few feet of the outbuildings at the Mountain House, and the costly structure there owed its safety mainly to a fire-engine, which had been hastily brought there, from the village of Catskill, twelve miles distant. A view by night, of the mountains, with the flames rolling along their sides and summits, and shining forth from the trunks and tops of lofty forest trees, is a scene of exciting and appalling splendor, well nigh as grand and imposing as an eruption of Vesuvius or Etna.
Another painting by Cole, after his return from the Mountains, was "The Falls of the Cauterskill," the last word being here written as it is commonly pronounced, though the proper original spelling of the word is Kaaterskill, meaning the kill, or stream, of the Kaater, or male wildcat, or lynx, and animal which is still often met within the region. This picture of the Falls was purchased by Colonel Trumbull, the celebrated historical painter, and two others by Dunlap and Durand, celebrated artists, to whom Cole was thus introduced, and thus, by the aid of these three distinguished friends, the attention and patronage of the public, far and wide, was secured by Cole, though at the time but twenty-four years of age. Trumbull then said to him: "You surprise me, at your age, to paint like this. You have already done what I, with all my years and experience, am yet unable to do." Durand said of him, "His fame spread like fire:" and Bryant, in his "Funeral Oration." thus wrote: "From the time he had a fixcd reputation, and was numbered among the men of whom our country has reason to be proud." Thus it would seem that the eagle-winged genius of Cole received and early inspiration, and made its first daring and successful flight for the summit of the Catskills; and hence it is not strange that ever after it should have been the home of his heart’s affections, within full view of which he fixed his life-long abode, and on which he fondly gazed, as from above and beyond it the setting sun shone, in its splendor and its beauty, on the closing scenes of life. Thus were these rude and rugged cliffs to him like, "Delectable Mountains" to the wayworn Christian Pilgrim, clothed with attractive grandeur and beauty, while above and beyond them were the high glories and enduring bliss of the Celestial City, the New Jerusalem on high.
It was a favorite maxim with Cole, that "To walk with Nature, as a poet is the necessary condition of a perfect artist." Hence he often, in his wanderings at the close of the day, wrote in glowing language, in poetry, or prose, or both, of the impressions made upon his mind by the scenery around him. Of these sketches I here give one, entitled
"Sunrise From the Catskill Mountains."
The mists were resting on the vale of the Hudson like the drifted snow; tops of distant mountains in the east were visible—things of another world. The sun rose from bars of pearly hue; above these were clouds light and warm, and the clear sky was of a cool grayish tint. The mist below the mountains began first to be lighted up, and the trees on the tops of the lower hills cast their shadows over the misty surface—innumerable streaks. A line of light on the extreme horizon was very beautiful. Seen through the breaking mist, the fields were exquisitely fresh and green. Though dark, the mountain-side was sparkling, and the Hudson, where it was uncovered to the sight, slept in deep shadow.
In a poem of Cole’s, entitled "The Wild," we have a similar description:
"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;
And 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."
In another place he writes as follows:
"Oh, for an hour
Upon the sacred hill, that I might sleep,
And with poetic fervor wake inspired!
Then would I tell how pleasures spring like flowers
Within the bosom of the wilderness,
And call from crumbing fanes my fellow-men
To kneel in Nature’s everlasting dome,
Where not the voice of feeble man doth teach,
But His, who in the rolling thunder speaks,
Or in the silence of the shady night,
Breathes in His power upon the startled ear.
Then would I tell the season’s change: how spring
With tears and smiles speeds up the mountain’s side,
And summer sips the moisture of her steps;
Tell how rich autumn, decked in colored robe,
Laughing at the thirsty summer, ceaseless shakes
The juicy fruits from her luxurious lap,
And winter, rending, in his angry mood,
With cold, remorseless hand, the mantle bright
His dying sister left him, rudely sweeps
His snowy beard o’er all the beauteous world.
The sun was set in peace. It was the hour
When all things have a tone of sadness,
When the soft cloud moves not in its azure bed,
Left by the purple day to fade and die,
But beautiful and lovely in its death,
As in the virgin who has died of love."
This town lies on the western side of the Catskills, north-west of the Mountain House, and about as high above the level of the Hudson River as is the region around the Pine Orchard, where the Mountain House is; while higher mountain summits rise between these two points, where, and in the deep ravines along their sides, bears and other wild animals find a rude and safe retreat. The view from the road from Cairo to Windham, up the north-eastern point of the mountains, is one of the most striking and attractive in all this region, in the fertile, highly-cultivated, and richly-varied rural scenery of forest and field which meets the eye, when near the summit of the mountain one looks to the north on the towns of Durham, Greenville, and the country far and wide around.
In the southern part of the pleasant village of Windham Center is a large, smooth, perpendicular rock, at right-angles to the street, from ten to twenty feet in height and breadth. In the year 1785, Henry B. Stimson, then a boy fourteen years of age, came from Hopkinton, Massachusetts, with his father, who was more than sixty years of age; and the two built, against the side of that rock, a rude cabin of brush and logs, with a roof of bark; and there they lived, among bears, wolves, and panthers, two years, until the other members of their family removed there. Their nearest neighbors were at Prattsville, ten miles in one direction, and at Cairo, sixteen miles in the other; and they brought their Indian corn, and other provisions, from the east side of the Hudson River, some thirty miles distant. This corn they bruised or ground with a stone, on the top of a large rock. Just as the first winter of their sojourn there commenced, their rude cabin, with everything in it, was burned; and then they reared another, which was but a poor shelter for them, amid the deep snows and raging winds of those mountains heights.
At the age of twenty, the son had been at school but three or four months in all; and yet, by the diligent reading and study of such books as he could obtain, much of it at night, after severe toil by day, lighted by pine-knots stuck in the back of the chimney of their log-cabin, and lying with his book on the floor before him, he laid the foundation of a solid, useful education; so that, at the age of thirty, with only one year’s schooling abroad, and the aid, to some extent, of clergymen several miles from him, he became the first pastor of the Presbyterian Church, founded by him in Windham; and in twenty-two years admitted between six and seven hundred to its communion, baptized about the same number of children, and married nearly two hundred couples. His mountain diocese embraced what are now five or six townships, and he often attended four or five religious services, several miles distant from each other, on a single Sabbath. All honor to such hardy and hard-working pioneers, who laid broad and deep the foundations of religious truth and order, to enlighten and guide all who should come after them. Mr. Stimson preached most of his life in the region where he first came as a pioneer, and in 1852, died, where his family still live, in the eightieth year of age, having, for the last eight years of his life, been deranged.
The biographer of Cole thus writes of him:--Attracted by the wild scenery of Windham, he made an excursion there in the Autumn of 1826. The following is a description of an ascent to a mountain summit:--
Trip to Windham.
At an hour and a half before sunset I had a steep and lofty mountain before me, heavily wooded, and infested with wolves and bears; and as I had been informed, with no house for six miles. But I determined, in spite of all difficulties, and an indescribable feeling of melancholy, to attain my object: so pressing my portfolio to my side, I dashed up the dark and woody height. After climbing some three miles of steep broken road, I found my self near the summit of the mountain, with (thanks to some fire of past times) a wide prospect. Above me, jutted our some bare rocks; to these I clambered up, and sat upon my mountain throne, the monarch of the scene. The sun was now nearly setting, and the shadows veiled in dim obscurity the quiet valley. Here and there a stream faintly sparkled; clouds flaming in the last glories of day hung on the points of the highest peaks, like torches lifted by the earth to kindle the lamps of heaven. Summit rose above summit, mountain rolled away beyond mountain. The prospect was sublime. A hasty sketch or two, and I commenced my descent. After a hurried walk of two or three miles, I came to a log house, a rude swinging sign pointing it out as a place of sojourn for the night. I walked in, and it appeared comfortless enough. I felt as though I should be more comfortable in the woods. I was relieved, however, when my landlady appeared with clean and smiling face, and asked me upstairs. A scene of neatness here presented itself that I had not expected. After a plain supper of cheese, rye-bread and butter, I was entertained by an old hunter with a recital of feats of the chase. Here in this valley he and his wife had resided more than twenty years, and raised, with the help of no hands but their own, the first log house. Those were days of privation and hardship for the pioneer, but he looks back upon them as days of happiness. ‘There we but few of us, then,’ the old hunter said, ‘and we loved and helped one another; but it is not so now.’ I believe all the people in the little settlement flocked together in the evening to see me—a strange animal, surely; and a hard-featured, long-bearded, long legged company they were. My portfolio was an object of universal curiosity One wiseacre pronounced it, in a low voice, ‘a gammar.’ They took the liberty, when my back was turned, of opening it, in order to see what so large a book might contain. What discoveries they made in their own estimation I hardly know. I simply heard something about maps. I slept soundly, rose early at a good breakfast, and desired of my kind host what was to pay—One shilling.
I offered them a bank-note, as I had no silver; unfortunately they could not change it and so I gave my note for one shilling, payable on demand, at _____’s, nine miles distant. I then took my way back ‘Over hills, over dales, through bush, through briers.’"
The following sketch is also by Cole:-
Storm in the Catskills
In one of my mountain rambles I was overtaken by a thunderstorm. In the early part of the day the sky was brilliant and unclouded. As it advanced, huge masses of vapor were seen moving across the deep blue. Though there was some reason to expect a storm, I contented myself with the hope that the clouds would pass over the mountains without unburdening, themselves. My hope proved fallacious. A sudden darkness enveloped the scene, which a few moments before was beaming with sunlight, and thunders muttered in the distance. It was necessary soon to seek a shelter, which I found beneath an overhanging rock. Under this massive canopy of stone I took my station, with the feeling of one who know himself out of the reach of peril, while it is all around him. Here, thought I, as I paced the rocky floor of my temporary castle, I will watch unharmed the battle of the elements. The storm came on in all its majesty. Like a hoarse trumpet sounding to the charge, a strong blast roared through the forest, which stooped in its weakness, and shook off its leaves as thickly as in October. To this tremendous onset succeeded a death-like calm. The deep gorge below me grew darker, and the gloom more awful; terrific clouds gathered in their black wings, upon the hollow hushed abyss, closer and closer. Expectation hung on every crag. A single pass of one long blade of lightning through the silence, followed by a crash as of a cloven mountain with a thousand echoes, was the signal for the grand conflict. A light troop of raindrops first swept forward, footing it over the boughs, with a soft and whispery sound; then came the tread of the heavy shower; squadrons of vapor rolled in, shock succeeded shock, thunderbolt fell on thunderbolt, peal followed peal, waters dashed on every crag from the full sluices of the sky. I was wrapped in the folds of the tempest, and blinded to every prospect beyond the rugged doorway of the cave. Then came up a thousand fancies. I thought myself careering in a chariot of rock through airy wastes, beyond the reach of gravitation, with no law by my own will. Now I rose over mountainous billows of mist, then plunged into the fathomless obscure. Night shot athwart the darkness, darkness extinguished light: to musical murmurs succeeded quick explosions. There was no cessation, fixedness, or rest. The storm kept on, strong and furious; no fancy could dissipate the awful reality; no imagery of mind could amuse the fears that began to throng around my heart! Trees fell with a stifled crash, cataracts mingled their din with the general uproar. I began to fear that the rocks would be loosened from the brow of the mountain above me, and roll down with overwhelming force. The lighting played round my very tenement, and the thunder burst on my door-stone. I felt as feeble as a child. Every moment my situation was becoming more comfortless, as well as romantic. A torrent, to all appearance parted by the projecting crag which formed the roof of my shelter, came rushing down on both sides of me, and met again a short distance below me. Here I was, a captive to the floods, and began to meditate the possibility of having to spend the night in this dismal nook. There was the hard rock, a little mat of moss, and the remains of a mountain dinner in my knapsack. The wind drove the chilly vapor though my portals; the big drops gathered on my stone ceiling, and pattered on my hat and clothes, and the waters began to flow in little brooks across my floor. My bed of moss became a saturated sponge. I piled the loose flakes of rock in the cave, and sought comfort on the rugged heap. My only hope was the sudden cessation of the storm. I knew that the sun was hardly yet setting, although the darkness had deepened fearfully. But this, to my great joy, turned out to be the crisis of the tempest."All at once a blast with the voice and force of a hurricane swept up through the gulf, and lifted, with magical swiftness, the whole mass of clouds high into the air. This was the signal for a general dispersion. A flood of light burst in from the west, and jeweled with glittering raindrops the whole broad bosom of the mountain. The birds began to sing, and I saw in a neighboring dell the blue smoke curling quietly up from the cottage chimney."
Early in the summer of 1827, Cole was again in the Catskill, where he fitted up a room for painting; and, as usual, spent much time in the open air, sketching and drawing, and wandering among the mountains.
The story which follows has a strong flavor of the fanciful and romantic; and yet to one familiar with the wild scenery of the mountains, and the imposing and varied force and grandeur of the raging torrents, which, after a freshet, run down the deep ravines, scarce anything in the way of description appears overdrawn or extravagant.
"The sun was low in the sky, and seemed to hasten down with unaccustomed speed, for I was alone and a stranger in wilderness. The nearest habitation was on the other side of a mountain which rose before me, whose tangled woods were the haunt of wild animals. I had walked far that day, but my path had been through regions of nature that delight and impress the mind. Excitement had well nigh carried me above the reach of fatigue, and my feet were not slow upon the leaf-strewn path. A lone man in the wilderness is affected by every change of light and shade, of sunshine and of storm. In the fine morning his spirits are fresh and elastic as the air he breathes, and he feels as if weariness could never oppress him. But when evening is dropping her dusky curtains the wind has a tone of sadness, and the sound of the waterfall steals through the arches of the forest like the moaning voice of a spirit. Thus was it with me; joyous as I had been through the splendor of the day, I could not but feel a tone of melancholy as I treaded the deepening shadows of the woodlands. The road was steep and difficult, and the thick boughs on either side shut me in from every distant object. I reached, at length, the top of the mountain, and had a glorious prospect. The sun was sinking behind a dark fringe of pines and rocks, leaving the vales in solemn shadow. Here and there beams of reflected light shot up from the depths below, from the rapid brook, or the quiet pool. On every side the mountain bore there burden of ancient woods; far as sight could reach, through glens and craggy passes, and up to the mountain line, melting away in misty distance, all was the old woody wilderness. Here and there, piled on the overtopping pinnacles, clouds bathed themselves in the last red sun-beams. The chilly air of twilight had come before I could leave this glorious solitude. Anxious to reach my intended resting-place for the night, I hastened onward with redoubled speed. My path led steeply down into a deep valley; the shades thickened at every step, and rendered its windings more and more obscure. Several times I hesitated, in doubt as to its course, and at length I lost it entirely. A tornado had recently passed this way, and laid prostrate almost every tree in its track of desolation. How long I struggled through the entangled roots and branches I could not tell, but they seemed interminable. I went forward and back, to the right hand and to the left, and at length was so bewildered as to be wholly unable to decide which way I should go.
"The truth at last crept over me. I was lost—lost past finding out or being found, at least for that night. Fatigued, dripping with perspiration, disheartened, hungry, and vexed, I sat down among the briers, with the resolution to wait there until the bread of day. But the air grew chilly, wild clouds hurried across the sky, and the wind sounded hollow and forebodingly through the forest. Inaction I could endure no longer. Again I tried to extricate myself from the windfall, with a desperate energy. I climbed and stooped, scrambled, crawled, and dodged. Now a limb struck me in the face, and I fell backwards among the brambles; then I made a misstep, or a rotten bough broke beneath my foot, and I plunged forward with a crash. I was every moment in danger of breaking my limbs, and putting our my eyes. At length, to my unspeakable delight, I struck into open ground, and advanced a few yards with as much spirit as if the difficulty was all over, and the end of my efforts was attained. This again was of short duration. The ground was pitch black, and I could see no more of its surface than a blind man. One moment I fancied it was smooth where it was rough, or started back as if from a hollow, where the surface was actually rising. It was dark as Egypt, and I stood still. The next few moments were among the most strange and critical in my life; yet I was without the least sense of danger, listening to the rapid beating of my heart, when the sod gave way beneath my feet and I shot down an almost perpendicular bank of earth, with a force and swiftness that outstripped the loose earth and stones that came down after me.
"In vain did I throw out my arms with the hope of grasping rock, root, or shrub; everything I seized gave way instantly, and joined in the general plunge. How long was the earthy steep, or how high was the rock over which, at last, I dashed headlong, I could not tell:---deep water received me in its cold embrace. How I managed to escape instant drowning, as I could never swim, I do not know. An involuntary struggle brought me to the surface, and clinched my hands to a rock which rose above the water. Upon this rock I climbed, and lay for awhile motionless and exhausted. Soon, however, I was able to sit up and look around. Save a small spot of blue sky, far, far overhead, with a single star, all was dark as Erebus itself. My first thought was to sit out the night, but my hands and feet began to ache with cold, and my whole frame to shiver. The lone star was gone, and the wind began to howl in the forest above me, in token of coming rain. The trees moaned sullenly, and chafed each other, and a large raindrop fell upon my face. A heavy rain I knew would quickly swell the brooks to raging torrents, and sweep me from the rock. Something must soon be done to relieve me from danger.
"Taking firm hold of the rock, I carefully lowered myself into the water, and found it beyond my depth. With the greatest difficulty I regained my former situation. I then tried to the other side of the rock, and could touch the bottom. Quitting my stronghold, I waded, breast deep, in the water, until putting forth my hands, I laid them on a wet solid wall of perpendicular rock, extending as far as I could reach. My heart sank within me. My blood ran with a chilly tingling through my veins, a cold sweat stood upon my forehead. I was imprisoned in a dungeon of precipices, and the rain was falling in sheets. The sickness of despair seized upon me. ‘Here, then,’ I exclaimed, ‘I shall perish;’ my friends will never know what has become of me. I shouted, but to no purpose; my voice was instantly smothered by the roar of the wind and the rain. Desperation seized upon me, and I determined to rescue myself at every hazard. I first held my hand in the water to learn the direction of the currant, in order to find some outlet, but the water was in perfect repose. I then began to wade round the pool, with one hand upon the rock. So deep was the water that my progress was slow, and the pool seemed of great extent. At length a rumbling murmur, as of a stream running in a cavern, fell distinctly on my ears, in a momentary lull of the storm. Soon I was near the outlet of the dungeon lake, but what was my terror when I found the water tumbling into the mouth of a cavern, the arch of which I could feel with my hands as I stood in the current. By my fear was quickly gone, and I made my way down among the crags and foam. I worked with the energy of desperation, and found that the rapid was more turbulent than deep, until I reached a smooth rocky floor, over which the water flowed silently. Whither the stream led, was a question which greatly excited me, but there was no return, and no delay. The dash of my footsteps, as I waded forward, rang strangely through the hollow cave, and I felt a wild and vivid pleasure as I advanced. I shouted, sang, whistled, for the very horror of the thing, and strode on courageously and strong. All at once the floor declined, and the water deepened. I paused a moment, turned back, and struck my head against the limb of a small dry tree lodged by a freshet, on a projecting crag of the cavern.
"I rolled off the dry fragment of the tree into the water, and pushed it on before me until the water as too deep for wading, and then mounting it, committed myself to the mercy of the current. At length the motion of my odd bark was evident, and I heard the low murmur of falling water. The stream became swift and whirling, and I felt that the crisis of my fate was fast approaching. The murmur had now increased to the dashing of a cascade, and the stillness of the atmosphere was broken by gusts of misty wind. I floated on smoothly and swiftly; there was sudden lighting up of the darkness, and my bark struck. I sprang into the shallow rapid, and was indeed on the verge of a waterfall, but to my great joy I found myself in the open air. A few steps brought me to a sandy bank, where I sat down in a state of mingled excitement and gratitude, and rested till my stiff and chilly limbs warned me to make some efforts to find a dwelling.
"The tempest had passed over; the moon, rising above the distant peak, sent her soft light through the shattered clouds; a faint blush in the east announced the dawn of day, and the barking of a dog gave me delightful intelligence of a house. Wet and weary I picked my way through the brushwood, and soon came to a path which led to the log-cabin of which the dog had given me the signal. A warm, fire, and venison steak came in quick succession, with many wonders and guesses by mine host, a rough, but hospitable woodman. Among the most remarkable was the wonder how I came to get into the ‘pot,’ as he called the gulf where I had spend part of the night."
Cole’s Dairy and Letters.
After Cole’s return from his first visit to Europe, we find in his Diary allusions of the mountains, of which the following has a not unnatural connection with the narrative above:
"November 6, 1834.—Last night I dreamed that I was descending a steep mountain, and had to cling to roots and shrubs to aid me in the descent. One shrub, towards which I had stretched my hand, attracted my admiration by its beauty. I paused to gaze at it. As I gazed, I perceived, to my horror, that it was a serpent, coiled in an attitude to spring upon me. How is this dream like many of the realities of life! Objects the most beautiful, and which we desire to clasp, are often fraught with poison." [The poison (in the case of human objects of desire), of avarice, ambition, passion, pride, or discontent.]
February 25.—Speaking of storms, he thus writes:
"I sigh not for a stormless clime,
Where drowsy quiet ever dwells,
Where crystal brooks with endless chime.
Flow winding through perennial dells.
"For storms bring beauty in their train:
The hills below the howling blast,
The woods all weeping in their rain,
How glorious when the storm is past !
"So storms of ill, when pass’d away,
Leave in the soul serene delight;
The gloom of the tempestuous day
But makes the following calm more bright."
"May 23.—Spring has come at last. We have had a few days truly delightful: the softest temperature, the purest air, sunshine without burning, and breezes without chilliness; soft and cloudless skies. The mountains have taken their pearly hue, and the streams leap and glitter as though some crystal mountain was thawing beneath the sun. The swelling hills, with their white and rosy blossoms, blush in the light of day, and the air is full of fragrance and music. Oh, that this could endure, and no poison of the mind mingle in the cup."
Rip Van Winkle’s Dell, The Mountain House, and The Lakes.
"July 6, 1835.—I have just returned from the mountain, where I spent two of the happiest days I remember. Upon the evening of the third of July, with a friend, I determined to spend our ‘Fourth’ among the mountains. Having waited in vain for a stage until nine in the evening, we set out to walk. The night was fine, and the moon gave a pleasant light, until it sank behind the piney ridge of the North Mountain. Being thirsty, and finding no spring at Lawrence’s, where they were soundly asleep, we walked three miles further, to Rip Van Winkle’s Hollow. The long mile from the top-gate to Rip’s is very steep. Thirst, however, gave wings to our feet, and we reached there with parched mouths and wet skins. It was midnight when we sat down by the stream which comes leaping from the grand amphitheatre of wooded mountains. There was a tin cup glittering by the rill, placed there for the use of travelers, by some generous soul, and we drank from it again and again, of the pure, cold water, and the draughts were even more delicious than those of Rip from the famous keg. It was a solemn scene. Dark forests, rugged rocks, towering mountains were around us, and the breeze brought to our ears the sound of waving trees, falling water, and the clear chant of the whip-poor-will. We did not, like old Rip, sleep twenty years after our drinking, but reached the Mountain House at one o’clock.
"After breakfast, we strolled down to the small lake, a few hundred yards from the house. it has beautiful as well as grand features—rich forests and mountains. The lower lake is much larger and more beautiful than the other. I pointed our a view which I once painted, which was, I think, the first picture ever painted of the lake, which will hereafter be the subject of a thousand pencils. Several years since I explored its shores for some distance, but thick woods and swampy grounds impeded me. I enriched my sketch-book, with studies of the fine dead trees, which stand like spectres on the shores. As we made our way to an opening through the woods, which disclosed the lake in a charming manner, we perceived a rude boat among the bushes, which was exactly what we wanted. We pushed off and leaped into it, as if the genius of the deep had placed it there for our special use. Before us spread the virgin waters which the prow of the sketcher had never yet curled, enfolded by the green woods, whose venerable masses had never yet figured in annuals, and overlooked by the stern mountain peaks never beheld by Claude or Salvator, nor subjected to the canvas by the innumerable dabblers in paint of all past time. The painter of American scenery has indeed privileges superior to any other. All nature is here new to art. No Tivolis, Ternis, Mount Blancs, Plinlimmons, hackneyed and worn by the pencils of hundreds, but primeval forests, virgin lakes and waterfalls, feasting his eye with new delights, and filling his portfolio with there features of beauty and magnificence, hallowed to his soul by their freshness from the creation, for his own favored pencil.
"A little promontory, forming a fine foreground to a charming view down the lake, invited us. We had some fine perspective lines of forest on our right, with many dead trees standing near the shore, as if stripped for the elements. These dead trees are a striking feature in the scenery of this lake, and exceedingly picturesque. Their pale forms rise from the margin of the lake, stretching out their contorted branches, and looking like so many genii set to protect their sacred waters. On the left was another reach of forest of various hues, and in the center of the picture rose the distant Round Top, blue and well defined, and cast its reflection on the lake, out to the point where our boat swung like a thing in air. The headland was picturesque in the extreme. Apart from the dense wood, a few birches and pines were grouped together in a rich mass, and one giant pine rose far above the rest. On the extreme cape a few bushes of light green grew directly from the water. In the midst of their sparkling foliage stood two of the bare spectral trees, with limbs decorated with moss of silvery hue, and waving like gray locks in the wind. We remained here long enough to finish a sketch, and returned to our harbor to refit.
"After dinner we again launched our vessel for a longer voyage of discovery. We now crossed the lake, paddling, after the manner of Indians. Our boat glided beautifully over the tranquil waters, and swept aside the yellow water-lilies. In a strait between the mainland and a low islet, where the water was very still, the woods were reflected beautifully. The dead trees on the margin added by their silvery tints to the harmony of color, and their images in the waters, which had a gentle undulation, appeared like immense glittering serpents playing in the deep. At every stroke of the oar some fresh object of beauty would break upon us. We made several sketches, and about sunset turned our prow. As we returned we struck up the ‘Canadian Boat Song,’ and though our music was rude, the woods answered in melodious echoes. What a place for music by moonlight ! it would be romance itself ! this may be, and I may enjoy it."
"October 7,--At this season, when nature puts on a garb of splendor, when the days are brilliant and the sunsets full of glory, there are moods of mind when I feel that things are ill-timed and out of harmony. It is the saddest season of the year. Blight is on all the vegetable world. The woods are glowing with strange beauty, but it is the hectic flush, that sure precursor of death. But there are days when I feel no such incongruity; those days of clouds without rain, when shadow subdues the pomp of the earth, and the air crystalline, the woods repose in sombre stillness, and the waters take the hills upon their bosom, and veil them with transparent loveliness.
"October 30.—The weather, for a month, had been truly delightful, but this day above all. A pure, crystal-like atmosphere has floated over the landscape, and the brown of the leafless woods has been tinged with the purest ultramarine. The sky is clear and cloudless, the air is still fresh. Oh, Nature ! to the loving eye, thou art seldom without smiles."
" August 1, 1836.—This morning is a beautiful to me as ever fell upon the earth. The air is cool and transparent, the mountains clear and blue, the woods dense with juicy foliage, and every leaf is glittering with the gem-like dew. A robin is singing in the grove his never-closed song, and a little wren in the cedar near the window is warbling with all its might. I took a walk last evening up the valley of Catskill, once my favorite walk. It is still lovely. Man cannot remove its craggy hills, nor well destroy its rock-rooted trees. The rapid stream will also have its course."
Durand’s Painting of Rip Van Winkle.
In a letter to his friends Durand, the celebrated painter, under date of January 4, 1838, Cole thus writes of the painting of old Rip Van Winkle, by that artist:
"So Rip has toiled up the mountain with the liquor. I should like to see the old Morpheus; and though I may not be blessed with a taste of the somnific cordial, I hope to enjoy the sight of the flagon, when I may, perhaps, exclaim, like the old woman in the fable, who, putting her nose to the bunghole of an empty wine-cask, cried, ‘Oh, it thou art so delightful now. What must thou have been when full!’ But your flagon shall be enjoyed not by nose, but eyes."
It would seem from the above that Durand was then painting the picture referred to, and had reported progress to Cole by letter. February 12, Cole thus writes: "So Rip is about finished. I long to see him."
Where is this painting? It should be at the Mountain House, with a copy of it in that of my friend and parishioner, Mr. S____, at the foot of the ravine up which Rip Van Winkle passed to his long resting-place, on the airy mound above.
Excursion To High Peak.
Under date October 9, 1838, Cole describes the excursion made by himself, with two gentlemen and several ladies:
"The day was such an one as we would have chosen; one of our heavenly autumnal days, when the sun shines blandly through a clear and cloudless sky, and the crystal atmosphere casts a veil of beauty over the landscape, rich with the loveliest tints. Sundry baskets, with good things provided by the ladies, assured us that we should not die of famine among the mountains. It was resolves that we should sleep the next night on High Peak. We entered the Clove, the fine pass where, on both sides, the mountains rise thousands of feet. The sun shone with golden splendor, and the huge precipices above the village of Palensville frowned over the valley like towers and battlements of cyclopean structure.
"At the village our party got out to walk up the steep road. Scattered in groups, we went loitering along, sometimes stopping to pick a flower or a pebble, and to gaze upon the precipices above us, or into the gulf below, where flows the Cauterskill, with many a rush and bound, as if it were making merry with its native rocks before it left them for the quiet windings of the lower country. We crossed a bridge which spans the stream under impending cliffs. This is a scene truly picturesque; but we could not linger to gaze upon it. We were hungry, and dined at a charming waterfall near by. We ascended the next day, and traversed some beautiful regions of moss, where the sun, shining in gleams through the tall, dark, spruce forest, upon the green velvety carpet, was extremely fine. It reminded me of the interior of some vast Gothic pile, where the sun comes through narrow windows in slender streams, and lights whatever it strikes with a refulgence almost supernatural, amid the gloomy shadows around. There was some hard clambering before we reached the summit, but the ladies did bravely. We remained all night comfortably, and descended the next morning, in health and spirits."
American And Foreign Scenery.
In the Autumn of 1841, during his second visit to Europe, Cole writes:
"October 16.—We have just arrived at Neufchatel, and were pursuing our way down the pass, the stream dashing impetuously along thousand feet below, when a view of Lake Neufchatel, and the distant Alps rising beyond, opened upon us. This was our first sight of the Alps, and a grand one it was. Upon the highest summits clouds were resting, while the level country was smiling in sunshine. The scene of the lake and the distant mountains resembled one from the upper part of the Platteskill Clove, where you see the Hudson and the New England hills beyond."
The Platteskill Cove is several miles south of the Cauterskill Clove, in the Catskill Mountains, with a wild stream running through it, far below the road.
Again, in October, Cole writes as follows: "I have seen no picture that represented the Alps truly, and words cannot describe them. The imagination searches in vain for comparisons. They are unearthly things, of the texture of the moon as seen through a fine telescope, beaming with a sort of liquid, silvery light—folds of heaven’s drapery fallen to the earth. After a short stay at Neufchatel we proceeded towards Berne, the Jura mountains still about us. How much they reminded me of our Catskills—their forms and forests. Scenes all American sometimes burst upon us.
"You may fear, perhaps, that the wonderful scenery of Switzerland will destroy my relish for our own. This will not be the case. I know that when I return I shall yet find beauty. Our scenery has its own peculiar charms, and it is so connected with my affection that it will never lose its power."
After reaching home Cole thus wrote to G. W. Greene, Esq., United States Consul at Rome:
"Must I tell you neither the Alps, nor the Apennines, no, nor Etna itself, have dimmed in my eyes the beauty of our own Catskills. It seems to me that I look on American scenery, if it were possible, with increased pleasure. It has its own peculiar charm—a something not found elsewhere. I am content with nature, would that I were with art. I wish I could transport you here for a few days, to enjoy with me these magnificent mountains. I know you would be willing to repay me in kind, and take me out of Porta Pia to get a sight of Mont Albano."
Table of Contents
Greene County History Home Page
Catskill Mountains and the Region Around Home Page