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Saturday, 31 May 2014

Thomas Cole (1801-1848)

A View near Tivoli (Morning), 1832.

Although he was not the first American landscape painter of quality, because Thomas Doughty and Thomas Birch, among others, were already at work, Thomas Cole enjoys the preeminent reputation as the best known, most widely admired, early 19th century painter of nature. Founder of the Hudson River School, Cole embodied in his life's  work a significant duality, revealing on the one hand a Platonic sense of nature as morally, religiously, and philosophically uplifting, and on the other a remarkable ability to capture the natural fact. This duality, which historian Barbara Novak identifies as "the real and ideal" was approaching resolution when Cole died. "Landscape with dead trees" is clearly a real painting, a very early effort, and one of three pictures which brought immediate success to Cole when first exhibited by a New York frame-maker in 1825. It was the product of the artist's first exploration up the Hudson River in the Catskills. His account of a day on this lake leaves no doubt that the area was a "place" of his own.

Landscape [Lake] with dead trees, 1825.

By Alexandra A. Jopp

Although English by birth, Thomas Cole was one of the founders of the Hudson River School, often called the first native American school of painting. He was born at Bolton-le-Moor, in Lancashire; after some years of schooling at Chester, he served apprenticeships with a calico designer and an engraver. In 1819 he came to America with his family and settles in Philadelphia, where he gained some further experience in wood engraving.  After a brief visit to St. Eustatius, one of the Leeward Islands in the West Indies, where the majestic grandeur of nature made a strong impression on him, Cole returned to Philadelphia and then began a walking trip to Steubenville, Ohio, where his family had meanwhile settled. For a time he assisted his father in a wallpaper business, but with the encouragement of an itinerant artist named Stein, who visited the area about 1820, he decided to become a painter. Cole spent the next few years as an itinerant portraitist in Ohio, but repeated disappointments and lack of success as a painter prompted him to return to Philadelphia late in 1823. There he spent a good deal of time at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where the landscapes by Thomas Birch and Thomas Doughty particularly impressed him.

By the time Cole appeared in New York in 1825, his interest had turned almost exclusively to landscape. His first five pictures in that genre, largely "compositions," imaginary views, sold immediately. Impressed by the rural beauties along the lower reaches of the Hudson, Cole traveled up the river, visited the Catskills, and upon his return to New York painted three pictures that were bought by the painters William Dunlap, Asher Durand, and John Trumbull, the last of whom openly admitted "[Cole has] already done what I, with all my years and experience, am yet unable to do." With the further help of Dunlap's unrestrained praised, published in one of the journals of the day, Cole's reputation was quickly established. In 1826 he was one of the founding members of the National Academy of Design, and in the following years he played an active role in the art life of New York. Gradually, however, he tired of city life and withdrew to the Catskills for long summers sketching and painting. His earliest works were devoted to the wild, untamed aspects of nature, which he also effectively captured in his romantic writings about the hills and valleys through which he wandered.

Cole's paintings were sought by an expanding group of collectors. Daniel Wadsworth of Hartford, later founder of the Wadsworth Atheneum, acquired several; so did Robert Gilmor, a well known Baltimore collector, who not only gave Cole constructive criticism, but also responded favorably to his bold request to borrow funds for a long-delayed trip to Europe. Noble recorded that Cole wanted "to take a "last, lingering look' at our wild scenery... to impress its features so strongly on [his] mind that, in the midst of the fine scenery of other countries, their grand and beautiful peculiarities shall not be erased"; Cole made a quick trip to Niagara Falls before his departure for England in June 1829.  Trembling "for fear I should find my own littleness," he visited the Royal Academy, where the landscapes by Claude, Gaspard Poussin, and Turner made especially favorable impressions on him. In Paris, he visited the Louvre, but was disappointed to find the old masters hidden away to make room for the "wretched French productions" of the modern school. He found the Rhone Valley "exceedingly fine, resembling very much the Hudson." By the fall of 1831 Cole was in Florence, the "land of poetry and beauty," where he found the picture galleries "a paradise to a painter." After "painting incessantly" there, he went on to Rome, occupying the studio once used by Claude Lorrain. He also visited Naples and Paestum, where he made many sketches. Late in 1832 he returned to New York.  

The Departure and Return, 1838.

Although, for a while Cole continued to spend his winters in the city, gradually he spent more and more time at his "favorite haunt" at Catskills on the Hudson, ultimately traveling to New York only on occasional business trips. Among his patrons at this time was Luman Reed, for whom he painted the impressive series of five paintings called The Course of Empire (New York Historical Society). The tremendous success of this work encouraged Cole to undertake other allegorical series, including Departure and Return (Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.),  The Voyage of Life (Munson-Williams - Proctor Institute, Utica, New York), and The Cross and The World, for which he had completed only the preliminary sketches at the time of his death. Cole made a second trip to Europe in 1841-1842, traveling from England to Sicily, sketching along the way, and again studying collections of old masters.

The Voyage of Life - Childhood.
The Voyage of Life - Youth.

On his return to the USA, Cole continued to enjoy a reputation for his scenes in the Catskills, although it was largely the engravings after his allegorical pictures that established his popularity throughout the country. He was one of the first artists in America to concentrate wholly on landscape painting, but by the time of his premature death in 1848, a large number of painters were roaming our hills and vales and forests and meadows looking for picturesque scenery, and landscape painting had become one of the principal concerns of American art. His only pupil was Frederic E. Church, who came to his Catskill studio in 1844.

The Titan's Goblet, 1833.
View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836.

View on the Catskill—Early Autumn, 1836-37.

The Fountain of Vaucluse, 1841.

The Mountain Ford, 1846.

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