Thomas Cole (1801-1848) was the founder of the Hudson River school of romantic American landscape painting. He treated the idyllic as well as the formidable aspects of nature in great detail and was also noted for his allegorical subjects.
Thomas Cole was born in Bolton-le-Moors, Lancaster, England, and emigrated with his family to Philadelphia in 1818. They soon moved to Steubenville, Ohio, where Thomas, who had studied engraving briefly in England, taught art in his sister's school. He then tried to be an itinerant portrait painter. Seeking better patronage, he returned to Philadelphia in 1823 to paint landscapes and decorate Japan ware. He took drawing lessons at the Pennsylvania Academy and exhibited there for the first time in 1824.
Moving to New York the following year Cole began to receive recognition and may at this time be said to have set in motion the taste for romantic landscape—a genre which would later become known as the Hudson River school. Taking a trip up the Hudson River, he painted three landscapes. Placed in the window of Coleman's Art Store, they were purchased at $25 apiece by three well-known artists of the day: John Trumbull, Asher Durand, and William Dunlap. Cole was now established and able to support himself by his landscapes.
Cole moved up the Hudson in 1826 to Catskill. After seeing the great scenic wonders of the White Mountains and Niagara, he sailed for England in 1829 under the patronage of Robert Gilmore of Baltimore. Although Cole admired the paintings of Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Poussin, he spent little time in European museums, preferring to sketch out of doors. After a brief visit to Paris he went down the Rhone River and then to Italy. After nine weeks in Florence he went to Rome, accomplishing most of the journey on foot.
Returning to New York in 1832, Cole was given a commission by an art patron to execute five panels. Known as the Course of Empire, these were considerably influenced by J.M.W. Turner's Building of Carthage, which Cole had seen in London.
In November 1836 Cole married Maria Barton, whose family home in Catskill became their permanent residence. Commissions came in from William P. Van Rensselaer for The Departure and The Return, from P. G. Stuyvesant for Past and Present, and from Samuel Ward for four panels, the Voyage of Life.
In 1841 Cole went to Europe again. On returning home he visited Mount Desert on the coast of Maine and Niagara. At the time of his death on Feb. 11, 1848, he was at work on a religious allegory, the Cross of the World.
With the overland expansion of America, people took great interest in their land and the various aspects of nature. Cole established landscape painting as an accepted form of art. He was a Swedenborgian mystic, and his paintings reflect his intensely religious feelings; never dealing with the trivial, his work has a high moral tone. He had a profound reverence for nature, which he depicted sometimes in a tranquil mood and at other times in a state of violence. He makes the viewer feel man as a helpless creature overwhelmed by the all-powerful forces of nature. He frequently placed a highly detailed tree at the right or left foreground (an inheritance from baroque stage settings), and the landscape beyond unfolds as on a stage. His was a highly romanticized version of nature often overlaid with elements of fantasy and sometimes even including medieval or classical ruins.
Further Reading on Thomas Cole
In the absence of a modern study of Cole, the best source is Louis Legrand Noble, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole (1853; edited, with an introduction, by Elliot Vesell, 1964); it includes correspondence and other documents. Howard S. Merritt, Thomas Cole (1969), an exhibition catalog, includes a critical introduction. For shorter notices see Frederick A. Sweet, The Hudson River School and the Early American Landscape Tradition (1945), and Esther Seaver, ed., Thomas Cole: One Hundred Years Later (1949).
Additional Biography Sources
Baigell, Matthew, Thomas Cole, New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1981.
Parry, Ellwood, The art of Thomas Cole: ambition and imagination, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1988.