A leading founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole settled in the heart of the Catskill Mountains in 1836, when he purchased a home in the town of Catskill, New York, located on the banks of the Hudson River. Nearby, above the Kauterskill Clove, a steep gorge directly west of Cole's home, the Catskill Mountain House offered a commanding view of the scenery which so captivated the artist and the American public in the early years of the nineteenth century. Cole produced several images of the Mountain House of which the present painting, Catskill Mountain House, is almost certainly the last.
Discussing the Catskill Mountain House, the art-historian Alan Wallach summarizes its importance as a destination: "Opened in 1824, it was situated on a high palisade overlooking the Hudson River. During the two decades before it opened, a small number of tourists and travelers had made their way to the site, attracted by the spectacular view. In 1823 the Catskill Mountain Association was formed to improve the road to the site and build a hotel. The following year the Association opened the Mountain House, which immediately began to attract "the elite of American society." Roland Van Zandt has attributed the initial popularity of the Mountain House to a series of articles that William L. Stone, editor of the Federalist New York Commercial Advertiser, published in his newspaper in 1824. A year earlier, James Fenimore Cooper had described at length the spectacular view from the Pine Orchard [at the site] in his widely read novel, The Pioneers, and over the next two decades written accounts and images of the Mountain House and its surroundings multipled." (Thomas Cole: Landscape into History, Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 31)
Cole's first image of the Catskill Mountain House was of a drawing he produced on a visit in 1835. The drawing, View of the Catskill Mountain House (Art Museum of Princeton University) depicts the resort as seen from a distance and surrounded by dramatic Catskill scenery. Returning from his sketching trip, Cole recorded his impressions in his journal entry of July 6: "Before us spread the virgin waters [of North Lake] which the prow of the sketcher had never curl'd, green woods enfolding them whose venerable masses had never figured in trans-atlantic annuals, and far away the stern blue mountains whose forms were ne'er beheld by Claude or Salvator or been subjected to the canvas by the innumerable dabblers in paint for all time past. The painter of American scenery has indeed privileges superior to any other; all nature here is new to Art." (Thomas Cole: Landscape into History, p. 51)
The drawing resembles the best known and most widely reproduced view of the Mountain House, the Brooklyn Museum's expansive landscape, View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountain, Morning, of circa 1844-45. In this painting the artist again depicts the structure from a distance and dwarfed by the surrounding mountains. Cole's rendition of the Mountain House in the Brooklyn painting stands in distinct contrast to its depiction in the present work in which it towers over the landscape like a temple in the wilderness.
In this work, Cole renders in particular detail the Corinthian columns which were added to the hotel around 1844. As recorded by Ellwood C. Parry, III, "Charles L. Beach, the proprietor of the Mountain House had had the east facade of the hotel remodeled. Instead of twenty pillars supporting eaves at different levels, with a pediment in the center and a catwalk on the roof, a 'splendid colonnade' of thirteen colossal Corinthian columns unified the facade, while also creating a graceful piazza or veranda 140 feet long." (The Art of Thomas Cole: Ambition and Imagination, Newark, Delaware, 1988, p. 320)
Parry also remarks on the creation of the present painting: "At some point after this major remodeling project was completed in 1845, Cole did a new painting of the Mountain House from the road below...This charming small picture," Parry notes, remained until the 1950s in the family of Mr. Beach, the Mountain House proprietor. In the work, Cole paints an artist seated by the side of the road. He is surrounded by dense foliage, tinged with autumn color, and he sketches, much as Cole himself had done a decade before (the figure may well have been intended as a self-portrait). The landscape retains a strong sense of the wildness that enamored Cole throughout his career. With the construction of the road and the Mountain House, this wildness had of course been partly tamed--a transformation on which the artist seemed to muse in his "Essay on American Scenery": "Where the wolf roams, the plow shall glisten; on the gray crag shall rise temple and tower--mighty deeds shall be done in the now pathless wilderness; and poets yet unborn shall sanctify the soil." (The Art of Thomas Cole, p. 320, and Thomas Cole: Landscape into History, p. 55)