Words Sara Elbert Photography Niki Asti
Esther de Jong, like the painterly pines and dramatic valleys just outside her door, is a natural wonder. Even while nestled into the arm of a vintage sofa, her long frame is discernable. Her elegant cheekbones are a reminder that she has sat for some of fashion’s most renowned photographers. It would seem that de Jong is the ultimate muse, until you lay eyes on her paintings and understand that she is also an artist.
De Jong’s romantic yet realistic depictions of the Catskills are an embodiment of this moment in time, much like the sublime landscapes of her favorite turn-of-the-century painter, Thomas Cole, who created his masterpieces just a stone’s throw away. Her oil paintings document how these rolling hills, once cleared in pursuit of dairy dreams, are regaining hardy flora along with the fauna that follow. In each piece, you relive the changing amber leaves of autumn or smell the earth after a heavy downpour. She balances the ethereal with the natural in a way that reflects her time spent in front of the camera.
The grace with which de Jong moves between her roles as mother, model and artist settled upon her six years ago when she moved upstate full-time to her Roxbury, NY cottage. Initially the result of a hormone-induced decision to head for the hills on a weekend basis, de Jong has found and lent herself to a community of former city-dwellers who are drawn to the picturesque terrain. “It was August of 2006 and I was pregnant with my daughter, Erin,” she recalls. “Only once did I lug all my paints to Central Park to study landscape painting before I realized I couldn’t bear the city summer.”
Having shrugged off the weight of urban life, de Jong enjoys spending more time with her canvases, with 9-year-old Erin and with her partner, Michael, also a painter. Inside their office-cum-studio, in-progress pieces rest near their desks for when the midday urge to switch gears strikes, and also to fuel the collaborative environment they vehemently promote. “I started that painting and got stuck,” says de Jong, gesturing toward a moody piece with heavy rain clouds. “Michael said, ‘I know what this is, let me take over,’ and it’s quite different now, the colors and values.” He nods and smiles at her with glowing admiration. She throws him a sweet glance. This woman has hit her stride.
As a team, Michael and de Jong’s reach stretches beyond the world of art and into the realm of real estate. Together, they’ve created Catskill Style Home, which emerges from another shared passion: settling adventure-seekers into comfortable digs, whether it be a weekend rental or a lifetime purchase. “I maintain each property on the vacation rental side, checking people in and making their stay as warm as possible,” de Jong explains. “Michael tackles the marketing and site design.”
On any given day, woven in between her myriad duties, de Jong explores this northwestern corridor of hills with prospective buyers in mind, searching for their perfect little cabin or plot of land. After all, it is this trade that allows her to reside upstate, without the stress of commuting south for work. She admits that there is more on her plate now than ever, but that it’s here that she feels most serene. “It’s fun, balancing all of these roles, while taking in the beauty of nature. I have time for the garden, for playing with Erin. I’ll take some calls but I make sure to paint between it all.”
Her agent rings and de Jong confesses that she’ll be heading to a casting in a few hours. With modeling gigs fewer and farther between now—entirely by design—she has found her rhythm right where she’s landed. Despite the occasional sips of honey-sweetened coffee, it is the incessant hum of activity in the house that seems to fuel her. That, and the persistent rays of sunshine that dance through the spruce and reflect off her golden locks.
From a vista high above the Hudson or perched in her own backyard, brushes in hand, Esther de Jong captures the bucolic beauty that is at the heart of her life’s work.