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Greene History Notes: Thomas Cole painting to go to auction

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    “Portage Falls on the Genesee” by Thomas Cole
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    “Portage Falls on the Genesee” by Thomas Cole
June 12, 2018 11:31 am Updated: June 12, 2018 11:32 am


A couple weekends ago, I had the opportunity to visit Letchworth State Park with my family.

While Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School of Art, did many paintings based on scenery in our area, he made a trip to western New York in 1839 and captured some of what he saw there on canvas.

Cole traveled to western New York at the request of the state Canal Commissioner, Samuel Ruggles, because he wanted Cole to capture the unspoiled beauty of the Letchworth gorge before a planned Genesee Valley Canal was built.

A long trip to be sure before rail transportation was introduced to that part of the state. When Cole got back to his studio in Catskill, he completed two painting; “Portage Falls” and “Genesee Scenery.” The “Genesee Scenery” painting is on display in the Rhode Island School of Design Museum.

“Portage Falls,” which is a painting of the Middle Falls in the gorge, was given to then-Gov. William Seward, in 1841. It hung in his home in Auburn for many years. The home is a house museum and I had the pleasure of viewing the painting many years ago.

Fast forward to 2013: the painting was removed from the Seward House Museum and stored in an unspecified location because of its high value and the need for greater security. The house had been left to the Emerson Foundation in the early 1950s by William H. Seward III.

In 2008, the foundation transferred the home, property and contents to the Seward House Museum, but one item remained with the foundation: the Cole painting.

The two parties, Emerson Foundation and the Seward House Museum, agreed to sell the painting to another museum or private dealer depending on the offers. Proceeds from a sale would be split between the foundation and the museum.

In 2008, the painting was appraised at $18 million. A reproduction of the painting was commissioned, and when completed, would hang in the museum.

Unfortunately, things are never that simple. Seward descendants led by Ray Messenger opposed the removal and sale of the painting.

After five years from date of the removal, Judge Thomas Leone approved the sale plan as envisioned by the two parties. The painting will be sold through the world renowned Christie’s Auction House.

I am anxiously waiting to hear what the latest Thomas Cole painting to be sold will bring at auction. In 2005, the Asher B. Durand painting “Kindred Spirits” sold for more than $35 million.

Reach David Dorpfeld at