Emily Cole’s Artwork Takes Center Stage At Cole Historic Site

Mar 8, 2019

An artist with deep roots in upstate New York is being celebrated this month with the first exhibition of her work in over a century.

In Celebration of Women’s History Month, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill is presenting “The Art of Emily Cole.” Emily Cole was the daughter of renowned Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole.  She was ahead of her time as she followed in his footsteps while earning her own place in American art.

Kate Menconeri is curator and director of exhibitions and collections at the Cole Site:  "Emily Cole was one of five of Cole's children and she's the only one who displayed interest in painting, and we are always thinking about what happened to her and just how they were fascinated by Emily's paintings."

2019 Cole Fellow Amanda Malmstrom says a measure of mystique veils Emily Cole:   "So in the 19th century there were limited opportunities for art instruction and exhibition, which were neccessary to become a professional artist. Emily had connections through her father, she was in conversation with artists such as Frederic Church and James Falconer and even her Aunt Sarah Cole."

Malmstrom says despite limited opportunities for women to pursue an artistic career in her time, Cole emerged as an artist in her own right.   "She studied at a New York City art school , we don't know exactly what one, and that's kind of the nature of Emily Cole. We have limited knowledge about her, yet the site owns this exquisite purpose of her work. She kinda received unofficial training from the artists she was in conversation with and yet she received some formal training as well."

Most women in her time were confined to domestic roles. Many were allowed to express their artistic talents, but only as hobbies and never for income or other personal gain. But Cole’s painted porcelain was exhibited in Catskill and New York City and she became a charter member of the New York Society of Ceramic Arts.

Like her father, Menconeri says, Cole lived and worked in Catskill where she created an extensive collection of botanical illustrations.   "We have in our collection over 100 watercolors on paper and painted porcelain objects. And they're really quite exquisite and delicate. A lot of the flowers and plants that are in her watercolors and on the china, are things that would have grown in her garden here and are part of the local landscape."

During her formative years, her father Thomas's trademark landscape painting was all the rage.   "Emily was just 5 years old when her dad passed away, but Thomas had already recognized his daughter's artistic interests and he had a nickname for her, 'Miss Periwinkle.' I think what's interesting about Emily's work is that she's paying close attention to botanicals and she's working in a time unlike Cole where there's new ideas and new thinking in science. And certainly people had been studying botanicals and plant life for hundreds of years, but I think that during Emily's time it was a very popular thing."

According to the Thomas Cole Historic Site, Cole led her own movement of American flower painting, which emerged as a distinct genre in the mid-19th century as scientists and artists were influenced by European still life painting traditions and scientific discoveries.

The Art of Emily Cole is on display at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill through July 7: the exhibition, accompanied by a guided tour, is being presented in the 1815 Main House where both Thomas and Emily Cole lived and worked.