Robert Donaldson (1800 – 1872)
In 1835, Robert Donaldson purchased John Church Cruger’s estate and renamed it Blithewood. Donaldson was a banker, originally from North Carolina, but relocated to New York City. He wanted a country estate, and was so moved by the Hudson River’s scenery that he bought this piece of land on the river. Donaldson was a prominent patron of the arts and greatly appreciated Romantic ideals, including a reverence for the landscape. He had been interested in art from a young age, and had amassed a large art collection by the time he came to Blithewood. His journals record his interests and inspirations, including his decision to move to Blithewood: when he visited the region, making the same trip up the Hudson River as most landscape tourists of the time, he commented on the sublimity of the scenery and felt he was able to see God in the natural landscape. Accordingly, he wanted to transform his estate according to Romantic aesthetics.
Between 1835 and 1853, Donaldson worked tirelessly on Blithewood. Alexander Jackson Davis altered the buildings to conform to a Rural Gothic style: although the ideas were Donaldson’s, Davis turned them into practical drawings and carried them out. Donaldson had a similar arrangement with landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing – the redesign of the grounds was a collaborative effort. Donaldson wanted a truly Picturesque dwelling, in perfect harmony with the nature surrounding it. The interior of the house was also remodeled, and one of the most notable changes made was the installation of a “landscape window” of Donaldson’s own design. This oval plate-glass window was meant to be the showcase of the Picture Gallery in which his art collection was displayed. The large window was surrounded by rich moldings, which gave it the appearance of a picture frame, and it showcased the view of the river. The window, seen among Donaldson’s large art collection that included many landscape paintings, many of which were done by Hudson River School painters such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, blurred the lines between nature and art, conflating the two.
Donaldson was close with many Hudson Valley artists. Not only did he collaborate with Davis and Downing, he was close friends with them as well, and actually brought the two together. He also maintained friendships with prominent Hudson River School artists like Asher Durand, Thomas Cole, and Frederic Church, in addition to owning their paintings. These artists often visited him at his home. He had a strong friendship with Samuel F.B. Morse of Poughkeepsie, an artist who, although not aligned with the Hudson River School, completed many landscape paintings. He owned several of Morse’s paintings, and commissioned at least one painting from him, a copy of Raphael’s “School of Athens.” Robert Donaldson was a tastemaker and a prominent supporter of the Hudson Valley’s artistic scene.