The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Restorer unearths historic paintings hidden in home of American master

“View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains” by Thomas Cole, 1827. (Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
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It was supposed to be just a quick paint job, a few days at most.

But when refurbisher Matthew Mosca began chipping away at decades of old paint coating the walls in the historic home of artist Thomas Cole, he was startled to discover a tangle of delicate designs buried beneath.

“You’re not going to believe this, but there’s actually hand-painted drapery and thorns on the wall here,” he told the Cole historical site’s director, Betsy Jacks. The images were nearly two hundred years old, painted directly onto the plaster of the walls. And, Mosca says, they were almost certainly painted by Cole — the founder of America’s first real art movement.

“They stumbled upon something truly amazing — a once-in-a-century find,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday, according to the Hudson, NY, Register Star. Schumer was at the house for a visit aimed at garnering funds to restore the 19th century friezes.

Cole was the 19th-century father of the Hudson River School, the first art movement born in and dedicated to America. He and his cohort were famous for their dramatic landscapes and fervent devotion to the romance of the American wilderness. Working in the exuberant years of the early and mid-1800s, just after the U.S. had won its independence, they believed that the country’s stunning landscapes — so vastly superior to Europe’s tame ones, in their eyes — reflected the new nation’s character.

But the newly unearthed images, which show stylized garlands of flowers and a classical Greek “key” design, illustrate a period before Cole became the influential founder of America’s earliest art movement, conservators say. Delicate, contained and much more “European” than his later paintings of plunging waterfalls and soaring cliffs, the friezes harken back to the time when Cole was a young immigrant just arrived from Britain.

Living in western Pennsylvania and Ohio in the early 1820s, Cole toiled in his family’s workshop applying designs to textiles and painting images onto wallpaper, furniture and floor coverings. Though he didn’t like the work, and soon left his home to become an itinerant painter, the new friezes prove how much he learned from that initial job.

“Cole had always been understood as an untrained genius, a self-taught didact,” Jean Dunbar, a consultant in historic interiors who was working with Mosca, told the New York Times. “But considering his background, this training that gave him the basic tools he needed to start painting, it’s not surprising that he got involved in decorating his home. What is extremely revelatory about this is it shows how he integrated the two.”

Eventually, Cole would move to New York, where he was captivated by the haunting Catskill wilderness. He made his home, dubbed Cedar Grove, in the Hudson Valley about 100 miles north of New York City. He probably began painting the friezes right after he moved to the house in 1836, said Mosca, a specialist in historic paint finishes.

The images aren’t signed, Jacks said, but there’s good reason to believe they’re Cole’s. The restoration team dug up old letters of Cole’s in which he talked about his efforts to redecorate the house, and the paintings are “of his caliber,” she told the Register-Star.

Once he got his first glimpse of the friezes — discovered in two parlor rooms while he was peeling back paint to try and determine the original color of the walls — Mosca spent two weeks painstakingly removing the layers of paint covering the images. But the restoration is still rough, and it will take further investigation to determine whether there are more decorations hiding in the historic home.

“What used to be blank walls has the potential to be a room engulfed in historic arts filled with Cole’s paintings in a matter of minutes,” Schumer urged during his visit there Wednesday.

For her part, Jacks is bewildered about why anyone would have covered up the friezes in the first place. She thinks that they were painted over around 1900, by Cole’s descendants who lived in the house after his death.

“I’m guessing someone said ‘Let’s freshen this place up,’ and it was painted over,” she told the Register-Star. “… It’s unfathomable to me,” she also told the paper.