Preservation Magazine, Winter 2024

Landscape View: A New Documentary Digs Into the Past at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site

photo by: Peter Aaron (OTTO)

Early 19th century artist Thomas Cole is widely considered America’s first great landscape painter, known for his intricate oil depictions of sweeping natural views in the Catskills, where he lived and worked. But Cole wasn’t a “one-man band,” says Betsy Jacks, executive director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, shown above. “Thomas Cole didn’t do everything—he didn’t grind his pigments and make the tea and take care of the children and plant the garden. It took a whole household to make that happen.”

The role that diverse voices played in Cole’s legacy is the thematic thread that runs through Reframing an Empire, a documentary film about Cole’s life and work produced by WMHT, a PBS affiliate serving eastern New York and western New England. The film premiered on October 6, 2023, and is available for streaming on WMHT’s website.

“The core idea is that this historic site has a lot to say about our contemporary moment, and that we see this site as a jumping-off point, or a stage set, for telling highly relevant stories,” Jacks says.

The film also explores the lives of the Native Americans whom Cole occasionally included in his paintings and writings. The site’s 2024 exhibition, Native Prospects: Indigeneity and Landscape Painting, will cover the same topic when it opens on May 4. “It really gives us an opportunity to talk about those depictions and how they differ from reality,” Jacks says.

Malea Martin is the assistant editor at Preservation magazine. Outside of work, you can find her scouring antique stores for mid-century furniture and vintage sewing patterns, or exploring new trail runs with her dog. Malea is based on the Central Coast of California.

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