Exhibition Review: Women, Land and Art at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site

Lund Humphries Commissioning Editor for Art History Erika Gaffney reviews the current exhibition at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site which shines a light on historic and contemporary women artists, and on what their art says about humankind's relationship with the land...

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Last weekend marked my first-ever visit to the Thomas Cole National Historic Site (TCNHS) in Catskill, New York. The English-American painter after whom this museum is named founded the Hudson River School, a movement traditionally associated with male artists. But in recent years, art historians, curators, dealers and other stakeholders have begun to shine a light on the women artists of the Hudson River School. 

This summer the TCNHS presents Women Reframe American Landscape, an exhibition in two parts. One segment, Susie Barstow and Her Circle, moves forward the work of recognizing the contributions of 19th-century women of the Hudson River Valley to American landscape painting. Susie Barstow and Her Circle is housed in the New Studio building. About a dozen Barstow framed landscape oil paintings of varying sizes adorn two of the walls. There are also display cases that present objects of material culture, including—among many other items—Susie’s paintbox, tickets she saved from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, a receipt to one of her students for art lessons, and the artist’s calling card.

Installation view of the 'Susie Barstow & Her Circle' portion of Women Reframe American Landscape in Thomas Cole’s New Studio © Peter Aaron/OTTO.

On the remaining walls within the New Studio segment of the exhibition, visitors find paintings by other women artists of the Hudson River School. These painters include Laura Woodward, Eliza Greatorex, Julie Hart Beers, Charlotte Buell Coman, Mary Josephine Walters, and Fidelia Bridges. The majority of paintings in this room are on loan from private collections. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that not many works by these artists are held in public collections. But I was slightly surprised and pleased to notice that many of the collections were identified in the placards by name. 

Fidelia Bridges, Small Bird with Flowering Ironwood, c. 1870, on display in 'Susie Barstow & Her Circle' in Thomas Cole’s New Studio. Author photo.

While the two Fidelia Bridges paintings in this exhibit are from private collections, this artist is an exception to my generalization above. More than 30 US museums—including the National Gallery of Art, the Met, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, to name just a few—hold at least one of her works, whether an oil painting, a watercolor, or a chromolithograph.

This year marks a significant anniversary for Bridges as well as for Barstow; it is exactly one century since each woman died in 1923. New books about each artist commemorate this anniversary, and a copy of each is available in the New Studio for visitors to browse: Susie M. Barstow: Redefining the Hudson River School, by Nancy Siegel, who curates Susie Barstow and Her Circle; and Fidelia Bridges: Nature into Art, by Katherine Manthorne, whose books on women artists also include Restless Enterprise: The Art and Life of Eliza Pratt Greatorex and Women in the Dark: Female Photographers in the US, 1850–1900.

Susie M. Barstow: Redefining the Hudson River School and Fidelia Bridges: Nature into Art flank the show’s exhibition catalog in the TCNHS Visitor’s Center. Author photo.

In Contemporary Practices, the complementary segment of this exhibition, the focus turns to living artists whose work touches—albeit in very different ways—on our relationship with the land. In one ground floor room is a site-specific installation by Teresita Fernández, which incorporates only materials found in nature; and a multi-media work by Ebony G. Patterson takes up nearly a whole wall. On the stair landing is a characteristically humorous-yet-incisive poster from the Guerrilla Girls, specially composed for this exhibition.

Installation view of Guerrilla Girls Reality Check: The Hudson River School in the Main House Entrance Hall © Peter Aaron/OTTO.

Among the works upstairs are paintings by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and some of her never-before-displayed beadwork; book art by Anna Plesset; sculpture by Jean Shin; a set of “seasons” photographic self-portraits by Wendy Red Star; and a wall-size photograph by Tanya Marcuse (it looks like a painting!) of carefully staged objects. Other artists with works on display in the house or in the Old Studio in the Visitor’s Center are Marie Lorenz, Mary Mattingly, Cecilia Vicuña, Kay WalkingStick, and Saya Woolfalk.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, She, Her, Hers Map; Amerika Map; Stolen Map / $ Map, 2021, on display in the Main House at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. Author photo.

The temporary display of contemporary artwork in the Main House intermixes with the permanent display, which comprises not only Thomas Cole’s paintings, but also furnishings and equipment that he and his household used. For visitors who thought they had left historic women artists behind in the New Studio, there is a pleasant surprise. The Main House display includes oil paintings by Cole’s sister Sarah, and watercolors and decorated china by his daughter Emily!

A View of Catskill Mountain House: copy by Sarah Cole, 1848 (left), on display in the Main House at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site alongside the original painting by her brother Thomas Cole (right). Author photo.

I am grateful to the organizers, lenders and funders of Women Reframe American Landscape for shining a light not only on historic and contemporary women artists, but on the profound and multi-faceted nature of our relationship with the land.

– Erika Gaffney, June 2023 

Women Reframe American Landscape is on at the TCNHS through October 29. In November, the exhibition will be on at the New Britain Museum of American Art.


Find our books on Susie M Barstow and Fidelia Bridges here: