A Fish Out of Water

By Claire Cushman MFA 2015

In the early hours of Monday, June 9th, eleven half-asleep Academy students trudged through the rain to Grand Central Station, dragging bags heavy with clothing and paint supplies. After what I’m told was a scenic two-hour train ride along the Hudson River, we arrived in Rhinecliff, New York, where staff members Katie Hemmer and Denise Armstrong met us with two vans. We piled in, and headed to Germantown’s “Central House” B&B, which would be our home for the next four nights and five days.

This summer marked the New York Academy of Art’s second Hudson Valley Plein Air painting residency, which affords students the opportunity to paint in the idyllic region in which the Hudson River School painters once worked.  Founded by Thomas Cole, the original Hudson River School was the first painting school native to the United States and rose to prominence in New York City in the early 19th Century.  The work was grounded in a celebration of the American landscape and the notion that nature was a powerful resource for spiritual renewal which led them to paint carefully observed, reverential, and sometimes idealized paintings of the Hudson River Valley and surrounding locations. Our retreat, led by faculty member Catherine Howe, offered a very welcome change of scene after a full year of toiling in our Franklin Street studios.

After settling into Central House (which we had entirely to ourselves), we drove to the nearby Clermont State Historic Site. The site protects the former estate of the Livingston family, and is named for its clear view of the Catskill Mountains over the Hudson River. Catherine met us in the visitor center (a small cottage that served as our painting base camp). She sprayed us thoroughly with bug spray and made us promise to conduct nightly tic checks on each other, then took us on a tour of the grounds. We made our way through an allée of enormous trees, past a bountifully flowering garden, by a pet cemetery with a gravestone from 1902, to the Livingston mansion. Rolling green hills surround the mansion, giving the property the feel of a golf course.

Many of us set up our easels and began painting that day, but were only able to get about two hours done before we were accosted by a downpour. This was a common theme during the week, so we ended up painting quite a few still lifes in the visitor center’s dining room. We also ended up playing a good deal of Pictionary and charades, telling ghost stories, and enjoying numerous “family dinners.” In true Academy fashion, there was plenty of wine. 

The next day, we ventured to Olana, once Frederic Church’s home and studio. Church, the predominant painter of the Hudson River School’s second generation, travelled extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East, and drew inspiration from the design he saw while abroad. Scenic carriage roads lead to Olana, which perches atop a hill overlooking the Hudson River valley and Catskill Mountains. The mansion’s ornately stenciled stone and brick façade is a mixture of Victorian, Persian and Moorish architecture. The interior remains lavishly decorated, as it was during Church’s lifetime. Bird feathers, Persian rugs and tapestries, sketchbooks, unique amber stain glass windows, and other eclectic objects, which Church acquired on his travels, fill the house to the brim. Hanging on the walls are over forty paintings by Church and his friends.

Thankfully, we had some sunshine while at Olana, and could clearly see Church’s stunning view of the Hudson River Valley. With the weather forecast clear for the whole afternoon, I was excited to get back into landscape painting, especially after focusing on the human figure for the school year.

Before starting at the Academy, I primarily painted landscapes. However, not having painted outside for nearly a year, I felt like a beginner when I began putting brush to canvas on this retreat. And on top of the unfamiliar subject matter, there were the challenges of painting outdoors. The plein air painter must contend with fickle weather, bugs, the annoyance of carrying one’s supplies around while finding a good spot to paint, and ever-shifting light. While at Olana, I couldn’t help but wonder how on earth the Hudson River School painters were able to create the meticulous work they did without the aid of photographs.

Although I felt like a fish out of water at first, I also found that what I had learned during my first semester perceptual painting class at the Academy deeply informed my landscape painting. This class (which I took with Dik Liu) made me think much more carefully about color temperature and spatial relationships, and has given me a far organized approach to painting from life. It was truly exciting to feel like I could put what I had learned this year to use “out in the real world” during the Hudson Valley residency. I highly recommend this retreat to all and any academy students next year. 


Claire Cushman (MFA 2015) participated in a week-long residency in Hudson Valley, New York where she and Academy artists Jaclyn Dooner (MFA 2015), Patricia Horing (MFA 2015), Richard Alex Smith (MFA 2015)  Rachel Birkentall (MFA 2015) , Shaina Craft (MFA 2015), Todd Eisinger (MFA 2014), Daniel Dasilva (MFA 2015), Kiki Carrillo (MFA 2015), Kerry Thompson (MFA 2014), and Ian Factor (MFA 2014) experienced a pastoral splendor that has enticed American artists for centuries.

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