Tuesday, June 30, 2009

North River Steam Cat

This spring, curator Ashley Hopkins-Benton created a feline version of Clermont's own North River Steam Boat for the Cat'n Around Catskill celebration. This is the third summer in which Catskill's main streets have been filled with colorful fiberglass cats, and this year, the cats are inspired by the quadricentennial. The Greene County Local Courier featured the "North River Steam Cat" in its June 11, 2009 edition, in an ongoing column by Louise Merrie called "Featured Cats of the Week." Check out the article on the "North River Steam Cat" here:

Other cats will be featured in upcoming issues of the Greene County Local Courrier , and of course, to get the best view, go check them out in person in Catskill, NY.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Collections aren't always as they seem...

As I mentioned in my previous post about paint analysis here at Clermont (“Painted Ladies”, March 27 2009), it is important, when we look at a historic house and its furnishings, to remember that things are not always exactly as they seem. Often, our collections hold secrets, and it is only with a well trained eye, or some in-depth research, that we can learn more about them.
This was the case this week with one of our portraits- a painting of young Henry Beekman, the brother of Margaret Beekman Livingston. In preparation for the inclusion of this painting in an exhibit in our upstairs exhibition gallery, I needed to do some research, and I began in the file we have on the painting.

The file provided a little information on the painting’s history, but nothing particularly unusual or interesting. In addition to hanging on the walls of Clermont, Henry Beekman has also been exhibited at the New-York Historical Society in 1973, and the Dutchess County Historical Society in 1989. In 1968, the painting was conserved, where it was given a new stretcher (the wooden support on which the canvas is stretched- click here to see an example of a modern stretcher), an old hole was strengthened, and the painting was re-mounted in its frame. This photo shows the back of the painting, with the supports that were added.
While the file did not include any additional historical information on the painting, it did list that it was attributed to Gerardus Duyckinck (1675-1742). Duycknick was a Hudson Valley limner, a painter of the 18th century who worked in a style characteristic of the Hudson Valley. Paintings attributed to Gerardus Duyckinck, who came from a family of limners, can also be seen at the Albany Institute of History and Art, the New-York Historical Society (including a portrait of a Depyster boy with a similar dog to the one shown with Henry Beekman), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Gallery, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Now for the interesting part: in the course of my research on the painting, I showed a photo to several other curators and art historians. One comment stuck out—I was asked if the photo was of the whole picture, as it was cropped somewhat strangely. In other portraits by Duyckinck, the sitter is posed with a dog, but usually the whole dog is shown. Also, cutting the sitter off at the knees is rather odd- usually portraits show the whole body, or cut the figure at the waist or just below the shoulders. Finally, the way Henry Beekman’s right hand goes right to the edge of the canvas is strange. To our modern eyes, the painting may not look strange at first-- we are accustomed to photographs cropping our world in strange ways-- but before the advent of the camera, such cropping was not done on canvas.
These observations led to the idea that the painting may have been cut down. Throughout history, paintings were often cut down, and for many reasons. Sometimes, there was damage along an edge, or a puncture in an area of the composition that was not as important. Occasionally, paintings were trimmed to fit a new, smaller frame.

As soon as I returned to Clermont, I gave Henry Beekman a second look. Looking at the back of the painting, I could clearly see the new stretcher, the metal supports that were added to keep the painting from rubbing against the frame, and the new canvas lining that was applied to the back of the original canvas. Closer observation revealed the edges of the original canvas. Here, one can see that the painted design goes all the way to the edge, and the edges are irregular.
This is especially true on the bottom and the proper left side, the areas that seem most likely to have been trimmed. So, it seems, Henry Beekman was once a much larger portrait! Hopefully, further research will reveal more of the story of this painting, especially during its life with the Livignston family!

The next time you see a painting in a museum, you might think to yourself-- "am I seeing the whole story?"

Friday, June 19, 2009

Clermont In Conversation

Now that we at Clermont are "professional bloggers," we've been keeping an eye on what else is on the net, what other museums are doing, and what people are saying. And we've noticed: there is a lot out there.

Personally, I am pretty technology averse so a lot of this manages to be "curiouser and curiouser" to me (to quote Alice in Wonderland). I can't help but follow some of my personal favorite museum blogs out there: the Farmers' Museum and the Tenement Museum (I've looked for a blog from the Fashion Institute of Technology museum, but I haven't found one yet). Sometimes, I find myself perusing other people's research. Since I am in charge of providing costumes for our intpreters, I sometimes wander to places like Hallie Larkin's 18th Century Stays blog, amongst others. And I know that our curator Ashley also often squeezes out a few minutes to look at what information can be procured from other researchers online.

In the past few months New York State historic sites have gotten very excited about the possibilities offered by talking to our visitors and fans on the internet. Clermont alone has started Facebook and Twitter pages in addition to our existing web page and this blog. Our neighbors at Olana showed up the rest of us right away by leaping into the complex world of Second Life.

Part of our goal is to here what you, the public, are saying about us. We've already been stalking you, snooping for YouTube Videos, Flickr photos, and blog entries about us. But we're tired of observing. We want to converse!

We've been blogging since March. We've tested the waters. We've gotten our feet under us. Now we want to know: What do you want to hear about? (MamaKass shared the following picture on her Wordpress blog after attending our Sheep & Wool Showcase in April 2009).

This blog is intended for us to share research. Our archives and collections are bursting with good stuff, and we know what we like to read about. But what are your interests? Alice's gardens? The Chancellor's relationships with other Founding Fathers? Room use? If you tell us, we will do a little extra digging. Have a good source you think we should see? Share that too!

Museums around the world are listening to what their visitors are saying about, and now we'd like to as well. So if you're dropping by and have a thought, don't hesitate to share it! Just click on that little "Leave a comment" button at the bottom of each post, and tell us about it. We'd love to know.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Fallen Clermont Trees Get a New Life

At Clermont, it is always sad when the storms bring down historic trees-- trees that would have been looked on by generations of the Livingston family. Our guest blogger, David Bayne, helped find a new use for several felled historic trees. In addition to being a talented furniture maker (and our guest blogger!), David cares for our historic furniture collections as the furnature conservator at Peebles Island State Resource Center.

April 1999 was not a good month for Clermont. A wicked ice storm knocked down many trees at the site and up the Hudson Valley. But I was too busy with my own power losses to think of Clermont until director Bruce Naramore called: “A walnut tree with a big limb has fallen in the garden – do you want it?” This is a call any furnituremaker longs for since a big limb means lots of figured wood from where the branch intersects the trunk. A tree growing in a garden is generally healthy and thick. So of course I asked Bruce if he could tag it for me until I got down there, but professional that he is, he said it was first come, first serve. So how do I haul a log, 3’ at the fat end, home to Washington County?

After some scrambling I was heading south on a delightful spring day with Frank from F&A Towing. I was advised that for this kind of “logging” a winch equipped ramp truck should work well. I got the feeling that Frank was happy to be not hauling another wreck off the highway - instead it was an adventure and an outing!

Although the weight distribution and soft garden were a problem we were able to get two chunks of good looking walnut up the ramp. While leaving, I noticed a respectable cherry blow down between the allĂ©e and the river. The tree was reasonably straight even though it grew on an exposed bluff, so we backed up. It wasn’t all that easy to haul it in, since I had to hold the walnut in place as the bed tilted and Frank choked the cable around the cherry. There are limitations to the logging potential of a wrecker truck.
With everything stacked in my barn yard the next step was getting a portable sawmill to cut it up into usable lumber. The sawyer did a good job and we were all wowed when the swirling wood grain was revealed for the first time. Nobody but God, has ever seen this before! The big surprise was the cherry log which had magnificent figure, but quickly loaded the saw blade with sticky pitch. The build-up was so bad he had to change the blade three times. No wonder the operator became cranky.

These two photos show historic precedents for the table made by David Bayne. The wood from historic trees is finding a new life in furniture based on historic examples.

Finally with the boards stacked in the barn, the race began – to find projects worthy of such pedigreed wood before the worms and bugs ate it up. Fortunately I had some help and Cathy Mackenzie and Leonard Bellanca have stepped forward with some great furniture.

Leonard is a furnituremaker who lives and works in Greenfield Center, Saratoga County, in the house and attached workshop that he designed and built in 2004. He earned a degree in architecture and studied furnituremaking in Philadelphia. He designs and builds custom furniture and woodwork, restores antique furniture, and is a house carpenter with much experience in historic interiors. For the last two years he has been a guest woodworker at the New Hampshire Furniture Masters exhibition and auction. The two end tables were his juried entry for 2008.

While Cathy was a student furniture maker at the North Bennet Street School in Boston she used some of the Clermont wood to make a traditional 18th-century tea table and a side chair based on an 18th-century Virginia example. For her it was important to know that the walnut did not have to travel from half way across the globe to reach her workbench. In most cases, furniture makers are lucky just to know the general location where their wood comes from, much less the exact garden where the lovely old tree grew. As Cathy said “It did not die just so I could use it.” She now lives in Hudson, NY and is a restorer of antique furniture.

Although the storm killed many trees the beauty of Clermont lives on in the furniture from the estate.

Friday, June 5, 2009


As you might have heard, next week Clermont will be getting a sail-by from the Quadricentennial flotilla. On Thursday, June 11th, the three historic flagships (the Clearwater, Half Moon, and Onrust) and many other assorted boats will parade by our site at noon.

Even though it's a Thursday, it's a perfect opportunity for picnic if you can get away from work. The weather is looking good so far, and I am already hunting for pasta salad recipees and charging up my camera batteries.

This isn't Clermont's first time participating in such a big event as the Quadricentennial. One hundred years ago, in 1909, New York held a Hudson Fulton Celelbration, and John Henry Livingston was an honored guest. A decendant of Chancellor Livingston, who partnered with Robert Fulton on the project, John Henry was invited to ride aboard the replica of the steamboat (popularly misnomered as the Clermont, though its historic title was the North River).

The boat, full of costumed passengers, docked within site of Clermont's mansion and spent the afternoon being toured by the public. I can only imagine that John Henry's wife Alice, toting an infant Honoria, was among those to climb aboard and investigate the boat.

Although access to Clermont's dock was cut off by railroad tracks years ago, there is no doubt in my mind that watching three large sailing vessels gliding up the Hudson River with the Catskill Mountains will still be an amazing picture. To explain the boats, their history, and the 1909 celebration, Clermont's Curator of Collections, Ashley Hopkins-Benton, will be delivering a short, family-friendly talk at 11:30. With nearby Germantown residents already calling for details and telling us about their picnics, I imagine that it will be quite the carnival atmosphere. I hope we'll see you there!