BLUE MOUNTAIN LAKE, N.Y. — When the American painter Thomas Cole visited the Adirondacks in 1835, he wrote about two mountain peaks that "stood in the midst of the wilderness like peaks of sapphire." Thanks to the efforts preservationists made more than a century ago, views like that described by Cole abound in the Adirondacks today. On the hillside location of the Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y., one can sit in an Adirondack chair and look out over the lake to a vast panorama of distant blue peaks, thickly cloaked with trees.
This year, as part of its 40th-anniversary celebration, the museum is featuring a major exhibit of Adirondack painting. "These Glorious Mountains: Masterworks of the Adirondacks" are on view until Oct. 13. The exhibit brings together artworks from the museum's extensive collection, along with paintings that have been rarely shown. Works range from 19th-century paintings, like Cole's "Schroon Lake" (1846), to a vivid green geometric abstraction by Ludwig Sander called "Adirondack V, 1972."
Many of the painters represented in the exhibit came to the Adirondacks not just to make art, but also to participate in outdoor activities. Winslow Homer fished and depicted fly-fishing in a watercolor sketch called "Casting, a Rise" (1889). Frederic Remington, best known for his scenes of the American West, mixed recreation with occupation in the Adirondacks. Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe, each of whom is represented in the show, vacationed near the shores of Lake George.
In the words of Caroline Welsh, chief curator at the Adirondack Museum, the Adirondack area has long been a "cauldron of national discussion about the meaning of wilderness" in America. Most of the paintings in the exhibit bear witness to the continual interpretation of nature in relation to human activity. They characterize the Adirondacks as an area of exceptional beauty, capable of sustaining human enterprise within a pristine setting.
As its name implies, "The Great Adirondack Pass, Painted on the Spot" (1837), by Charles Cromwell Ingham, was produced below the looming cliffs of what is now called Indian Pass. This cleft in the High Peaks region is near Mt. Marcy, the state's highest point. Ingham accompanied a party of hikers, including Prof. Ebenezer Emmons, the state geologist. The painter unrolled his canvas and set to work, creating a vision of the Adirondacks that would occupy the 19th-century imagination.
Although the area was already known for its iron ore, Ingham chose to picture it as an immense, untouched wilderness. At the foot of the large split stone in the foreground, a tiny figure wields an ax with little result. The wilderness seems safe from injury by humans. Another figure, crouched in the lower-left corner of the work, is Ingham himself, authenticating the view - and the viewpoint.
The attention to detail in "A Good Time Coming" (1862), by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, has made it one of the most popular pictures of the Adirondacks. While two guides prepare a meal over the fire, another approaches with a string of freshly caught fish. The sportsman pictured near the center has made camp life more comfortable with cartons of food imported from New York City. The makeshift shelter on Raquette Lake is one that Tait often visited.
Because the Adirondack Museum combines art history with social history, visitors can see many of the objects used in hunting, fishing, lumbering, and tourist life. Twenty-three buildings spread over a 32-acre area house collections of material culture, like boats and logging equipment. Life at the Great Camps, rustic compounds for the very rich, is illustrated, as are the daily activities of permanent residents.
Also on display are 50 horse-drawn vehicles and boats ranging from small pleasure craft to large motorized vessels. And one of the most popular attractions is the so-called Photo Belt, which invites visitors to sit on stools and watch a moving display of more than 150 vintage photographs portraying Adirondack life.
* The Adirondack Park in northern New York State is a unique American region, combining public and private ownership. A forest preserve created in 1885 formed the core of what is now 6 million acres. In 1894, the New York State Constitution proclaimed that the preserve "shall be forever kept as wild forest lands." Within its boundary, 42 percent of the region is publicly owned. Tracts of state-owned land coexist with forest enterprises. Vacationers have been coming to the area since the mid-19th century, staying at boarding houses or building humble cottages. At the turn of the century, wealthy Americans fashioned large, rustic retreats called Great Camps. Lake Placid is famous as the site of two Olympic Winter Games.