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Thomas Cole

British-American Painter

Thomas Cole Photo
Born: February 1, 1801
Bolton-le-Moors, United Kingdom
Died: February 11, 1848
Catskill, New York
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The painter of American scenery has, indeed, privileges superior to any other. All nature here is new to art.
Thomas Cole

Summary of Thomas Cole

The paintings of Thomas Cole, like the writings of his contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson, stand as monuments to the dreams and anxieties of the fledgling American nation during the mid-19th century; and they are also euphoric celebrations of its natural landscapes. Born in the industrial north-west of England, Cole moved to the United States as a young man, and from that point onwards sought to capture in paint the sublime beauty of the American wilderness. He is considered the first artist to bring the eye of a European Romantic landscape painter to those environments, but also a figure whose idealism and religious sensibilities expressed a uniquely American spirit. Indeed, despite his upbringing in Britain - or perhaps because that upbringing gave him a fresh perspective - his work continues to resonate as an exemplar of that spirit in the modern day.

Key Ideas

Biography of Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole Photo

Raised in Bolton-le-Moors, Thomas was the only boy amongst the eight children born to parents Mary and James Cole. His father was a woolen manufacturer who often moved the family around during Thomas's childhood, in search of better employment. This peripatetic lifestyle provided various opportunities for the young artist, including an apprenticeship in a printshop in Chorley at the age of fourteen, where he learned how to engrave designs for calico fabrics, and a period of work as an engraver in Liverpool during 1817. Cole developed a love of nature in his youth, and would often take walks with his sister Sarah to admire the landscapes of the north of England.

Important Art by Thomas Cole

Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill) (1825)

Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill) (1825)

Lake with Dead Trees is one of Cole's earliest works depicting the landscapes of the Catskill Mountains in south-east New York State. At the edge of a motionless lake, surrounded by dead trees, two deer are roused into action: one is poised and alert, the other leaps skittishly off to the right. Behind the dark wooded peaks sunlight streams through a cloudy sky.

Interpreted as a meditation on the nature of life, death, and the passage of time, this was one of five paintings exhibited in New York City in November 1825 on Cole's return from his first major trip along the Hudson Valley. Their acclaim amongst his contemporaries helped to ground his reputation as a painter of the American wilds; the writer William Dunlap purchased this piece, and published several articles praising Cole's self-taught painting techniques. Cole's career was advanced further around this time when he met the Baltimore collector Robert Gilmor Jr., who would become an important patron to the artist.

In terms of Cole's development as a painter, this image of untamed nature marks the start of his engagement with the Hudson River Valley as a source of inspiration. He once observed that "the most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive, characteristic of American scenery is its wilderness", and, for the first time in North-American art, Cole brought the impulses of a European Romantic landscape painter to bear on that wilderness: compare this painting to the work of Caspar David Friedrich, for example. Indeed, of all the Hudson River School artists, Cole was the most interested in conveying the Northern-European Romantic concept of the Sublime, whereby the viewer loses themself in the perception of a landscape whose scale and beauty are both inspiring and fearful.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1827-28)

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1827-28)

This painting depicts the moment in the Book of Genesis when God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Rather than focusing on the naked humanity of the couple, however, Cole dwarfs them within a natural setting whose scale and majesty symbolize heavenly power. Counterintuitively, the painting should be read from right to left, since the Garden of Eden was traditionally located in the east: from where fierce shards of light seem to forcibly evacuate the couple. The surrounding landscape is highly allegorical, a visual expression of Pathetic Fallacy, with the bright, cloudless skies of Eden offset against the brooding, stormy skies to the right.

This relatively early work exemplifies Cole's interest in religious themes, and his desire to equate the unspoiled beauty of the American landscape with the manifestation of God's will. If works such as Lake with Dead Trees indicate the Romantic infusion in Cole's painting style, this work shows his affinity with the allegorical, Neoclassical landscape works of 17th-century European painters such as Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Dughet. Rather than depicting a version of a real landscape, in this case an imaginative landscape based on the American wilds forms the backdrop for a scene from mythical antiquity, each element of which is highly symbolically loaded. The framing and miniaturization of human activity within that larger scene is reminiscent of Neoclassical landscapes such as Nicholas Poussin's Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (1648).

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden and similar works were not well-received when they debuted, perhaps because the American public was not yet ready to embrace Cole's apparent departure from the Romantic landscape style for which he was already well-known. This painting was also criticized by some commentators as being too similar to an engraving produced by John Martin for an edition of Milton's Paradise Lost (1667). Nonetheless, the painting demonstrates the breadth of Cole's historical influences, and was revealing in bringing to the surface the significant religious undercurrent in his work. Cole would return to religious painting towards the end of his life after joining the Episcopal Church.

The Consummation of Empire (1836)

The Consummation of Empire (1836)

The Consummation of Empire is one of a sequence of five paintings entitled The Course of Empire commissioned by Cole's patron Luman Reed, created between 1833 and 1836. Each painting in the series depicts the same landscape at a different stage of the rise and fall of an imaginary civilization. This, the middle painting in the series, represents the apparent triumph of that civilization, a scene crammed with classical porticos, rotundas and statuary, with a happy, colorful procession of citizens passing over the bridge in the centre. A statue of Minerva, goddess of wisdom, stands to the right, but seems to be ignored by the hordes beneath.

In fact, the whole series was intended to serve as a warning about the over-weaning ambitions of Empire. Even this painting, which seems to depict that empire at the height of its power, anticipates its demise in the representation of a militaristic ruler carried aloft by the citizens. Later paintings in the sequence show the ruin of the city, and its eventual reclamation by nature, which in this image seems entirely subdued (as represented by the potted plant in the foreground). Anxious to create an epic series of paintings, and inspired by the Neoclassical masterpieces he had seen firsthand during his travels in Europe in 1829-32, Cole nonetheless showed his unique ability through The Course of Empire to capture the American spirit in his work. These paintings sound a note of both triumph - America had recently liberated itself from the British Empire - and caution: that the new state should not fall into the same traps as its European predecessors. More than that, the series seems to express Cole's anxiety about the encroaching threat of industry and urban expansion to the American landscape.

The art historian Earl A. Powell sums up the cultural significance of Cole's series in stating that "[i]n its totality, The Course of Empire represents a truly heroic moment both in Cole's career and in the history of American painting. It was a paradigm of the Romantic spirit - melancholy, grand in conceptual scope, and didactic and moralizing - and it succeeded in delighting its audience." The Course of Empire shows an artist at the height of his powers, whose grand scope summed up the spirit of a nation.

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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas

"Thomas Cole Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 03 May 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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