Drawing on influences from both sides of the Atlantic, Thomas Cole brought attention to the glory of pure wilderness and the encroaching order of civilization.
“The most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive, characteristic of American scenery is its wildness,” wrote the painter Thomas Cole (1801–48) in an 1836 essay. “It is the most distinctive because in civilized Europe the primitive features of scenery have long since been destroyed or modified.”
With his powerful understanding of the primeval nature of the land itself, Cole can rightly be called the founding father of American landscape painting. He was an artist whose work communicated the vast magnificence of the New World wilderness with a directness and vitality that set it apart from European painting. Yet, as his ambitions grew, Cole’s work formed a passionate critique of the new American values, with their embrace of raw commercialism, sprawling industrialization and the destruction of natural settings in pursuit of gain.
More than a mere preservationist, he took an encompassing view of the nature of human interaction with the landscape. He saw human history as a broad arc in which wilderness gives way to the plough and cities rise from villages to form great civilizations only to be undermined by their own venality and corruption to fall into eventual ruin.
Cole’s view of how human activity affects landscape must surely have formed at an early age. He was born in England in Bolton, Lancashire, a hotbed of the Industrial Revolution where factories and grim terraces of workers’ housing lay in a long river valley.
The surrounding landscape was more or less open moorland, a juxtaposition that could not have been lost on the boy. Cole’s family was only modestly middle-class, and he received a brief and unhappy education before being apprenticed to an engraver in Chorley, Lancashire, at the age of 13.
The family religion was Calvinism, a dissenting Protestant sect that prized, among other things, the virtue of hard work. This apparently did not prove sufficient for the success of Cole’s father, who undertook a long series of failed business ventures.
After Chorley, the family moved to Liverpool, where young Thomas worked for an engraver and probably first saw engravings of the paintings of his day. In 1818 the family immigrated to the United States, and Cole found himself once again working for an engraver, this time in Philadelphia.
By now he had conceived the ambition of becoming a painter and received instruction from an itinerant portrait painter, John Stein, who lent Cole a manual on painting, which he later described as “illustrated with engravings, and treatment of design, composition and colour. This book was my companion day and night … my ambition grew, and in my imagination I pictured the glory of being a great painter.”
Right Place, Right Time
Cole threw himself into the pursuit of “being a great painter,” adopting the habit of drawing directly from nature. This approach allowed him to capture features of the American landscape, unencumbered by European stereotypes.
He was also fortunate at this time to receive a commission that took him to the Caribbean, where he experienced firsthand a tropical environment with all its wealth of exotic vegetation. In 1825, Cole moved to New York, hoping to establish a career as a painter.
From an economic point of view, he couldn’t have chosen a better moment. New York was humming with trade, and the Erie Canal was about to open, establishing the city as the focal point of trade to the Midwest via the Hudson River. Moreover, a tourist trade was just starting, fueled by interest in the wild landscape of the Hudson Valley.
The Catskill Mountain House had opened in 1824, offering incomparable vistas and civilized accommodations. So it was in the summer of 1825 that Cole took a steamer up the Hudson and discovered the landscape that would become his inspiration.
Staying in the environs of Catskill, the town where he would eventually settle, he made a number of sketches that he later developed into a group of paintings that would set him on a path to success. Exhibited in a shop window in New York that fall, they caught the eye of John Trumbull, the president of the American Academy of the Fine Arts. He recognized immediately the presence of a new and original voice and purchased one of the pictures.
Vast, Wild View
To understand what was so innovative about the pictures of Thomas Cole, consider his early work, View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson). To the casual viewer, it might appear very much in line with early 19th-century European landscape painting, with its warm ground, carefully graded tonal values and deep aerial perspective.
What is unusual is a kind of abrupt starkness in the composition, an almost naive directness, as well as a forthright approach to the idea of a panorama. The sense of starkness comes from the bold shape of the mountain on the left, whose dark, shadowy presence dominates the painting. Silhouetted against this, in brilliant light, a group of blasted trees and a squat, overgrown tree stump dramatically suggest the brute forces of nature.
Hovering around the valley are various misty clouds. They draw the viewer’s eye into the deep background where the Hudson River snakes its way into the landscape.
Just visible on the river’s surface are a number of ships. The viewer is effectively placed in a commanding view and left to contemplate the implications of all that he or she can see: the eternal solidity of the mountain, the harsh forces of the wind and seasons, and the encroachment of human activity in the far distance.
The presentation of panoramic views was much in vogue at the time, and a number of artists had exhibited work in purpose-built galleries in both London and New York, where the viewer stood on a platform and surveyed a 360-degree view of a city or vista. In such a setup the artist becomes a sort of intermediary, affecting to place the viewer within the experience rather than providing a substitute for the experience through art.
Variations on a Landscape
Trumbull’s recognition gained Cole introductions to the inner circles of American painting as well as its supporters and patrons. It was through this connection that Cole met Daniel Wadsworth, heir to a great mercantile fortune, who invited Cole to paint the financial mogul’s country estate, Monte Video, in Connecticut.
Painting another panoramic landscape, Cole pursued the theme of the confrontation of wilderness and civilization. Here, the carefully cultivated grounds melt into the surrounding wilderness in a reasonably harmonious relationship.
Not so in his next project, a pair of paintings executed in what he called “a higher style of landscape than I have yet tried.” They show, respectively, a view of the Garden of Eden and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
In the first, Cole used his earlier experience of tropical vegetation to create a rich version of earthly paradise. In the second, he conjured a melodramatic scenario in which Adam is cast out into the wild and rocky darkness of a primeval world.
For this he was greatly influenced by a composition by John Martin (1759–1854), an English visionary artist whose work Cole knew through prints. This time, however, Cole had misjudged his market, and there were no immediate takers for the works.
With his early success and now this hiccup, the artist began to think that it might be a good idea to go back to Europe for a while. He could improve his skills and learn about European painting firsthand.
Cole set sail for England in May 1829, arriving in London in time to catch the end of the annual Royal Academy Exhibition at Somerset House, where he saw the work of J.M.W. Turner in person for the first time.
Turner (1775–1851), the foremost painter of the age, impressed Cole with the scope and force of his imagination. Cole was less impressed when he actually met the great artist. “He looks like a seafaring man, a mate of a coasting vessel, and his manners were in accordance with his appearance” Cole wrote. “I can scarcely reconcile my mind to the idea that he painted those grand pictures.”
Cole was more comfortable with John Constable (1776–1837), with whom he formed something of a friendship and whose conservative views were more in keeping with his own.
Perhaps the most important influence during Cole’s English stay was his viewing of two paintings by Claude Lorrain (1600–82) at the National Gallery, particularly Seaport With the Embarkation of Saint Ursula. With their resplendent light effects and exquisite handling, Lorraine’s paintings incorporated narrative scenes from biblical and classical sources in a way that was truly poetic. “… to me, he is the greatest of all landscape painters …” wrote Cole.
From England, Cole traveled to Florence in May of 1831. In the convivial company of a group of expatriate American painters, he made sketching trips into the countryside and attended life-drawing classes at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze, filling a hole in his piecemeal art education.
In February 1832, he moved on to Rome, where he delighted in drawing the ruins, particularly the Coliseum, which was then overgrown and provided a powerful image of the demise of a civilization. He also relished the opportunity to draw and paint the landscape that Lorrain had worked in, the Roman Campagna.
By now, Cole had adopted the European art of painting oil sketches out in the landscape, carrying paints in pig bladders and working with a small easel and an umbrella. The practice would greatly enrich his work.
The Course of Empire
Returning to New York in late 1832, Cole was taken with the idea of a cycle of paintings that would trace the entire process of man’s interaction with the landscape. It was to be titled The Course of Empire.
He conceived it first in London, writing notes in his sketchbook. The scheme was simple but grand. Five paintings would be set in the same location showing the five stages of civilization. The first would show a wilderness inhabited by primitive people, and the second would show partially cultivated country with peasants. The third would be the very height of a civilization, “a gorgeous City with piles of Magnificent Architecture,” as he described it (The Course of the Empire: The Consummation of Empire). The fourth would show a battle with the collapse and destruction of the city (The Course of Empire: Destruction), and the fifth would show “a scene of ruins, rent mountains, encroachments of the sea, dilapidated temples.”
Cole planned the work on a large scale and, seeing that it would be a colossal undertaking, looked around for a sponsor. Eventually, Luman Reed, a retired merchant, commissioned the pictures for his new house in Greenwich Village, and Cole started work in 1834 at his studio in Catskill.
The Course of Empire…Continues
By the winter of 1835–36, the artist was hard at work on The Consummation of Empire, the third and largest painting of the series, a scene incorporating complex architecture and vast crowds. By this time he had been so long at his project that he feared the New York art world would begin to forget him.
He gained permission from his patron to take time out to paint a landscape to be exhibited at the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design. He chose a scene he had sketched earlier in the year, a view of the Connecticut River from Mount Holyoke (View From Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow).
Once again the artist painted a panoramic view, this time placing himself in the center of the composition, working with a loaded brush while his umbrella stands nearby. The left side of the view shows the landscape in a state of wilderness, and on the right we see a cultivated valley, parceled into fields and swaths of clear-cut forest.
The painting suggests that this transformation will be ongoing, and the question mark formed by the meandering river seems suggestive. Are we going to allow this to happen here?
Cole was working during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, an advocate of commercial expansion and unchecked growth, whose policies were accelerating the changes in the landscape—a development Cole decried. With its sumptuous and energetic rendering, its deep understanding of the land and its subtly pitched polemic, The Oxbow, executed in just five weeks, is probably Cole’s greatest work.
The painting received little acclaim when it was first exhibited, but subsequent generations have come to recognize its achievement. On the other hand, The Course of Empire gained enormous public attention when it was shown at the National Academy of Design later in 1836.
Cole went on to make many more fine paintings but, sadly, died at the age of 47, following a short illness. His legacy was considerable, not least through his pupil, Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), who would go on to become the greatest American painter of his generation.
In a broader sense, Cole gave legitimacy to the idea of a truly American painting, one that built on the richness of European art but adopted a new openness and directness of vision.
Speaking at his funeral, the poet William Cullen Bryant observed that Cole’s paintings “never strike us as strained or forced in character; they teach but what rose spontaneously in the mind of the artist; they were the sincere communications of his own moral and intellectual being.”
Article written by John A. Parks.
A version of this story appeared in Artists Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.