Cole, Thomas

(1 February 1801 - 11 February 1848)

Born at Bolton-le-Moors, Lancashire, England, American Romantic landscape painter who was a founder of the Hudson River school.

Cole’s family immigrated first to Philadelphia and then settled in Steubenville, Ohio. He was trained by an itinerant portrait painter named Stein and then spent two years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1825 some of Cole’s landscapes in a New York shop window attracted the attention of Colonel John Trumbull and the painter Asher B. Durand. They bought his works and found him patrons, assuring his future success.

In 1826 Cole made his home in the village of Catskill, New York, on the western bank of the Hudson River. From there he frequently journeyed through the Northeast, primarily on foot, making pencil studies of the landscape. He used these sketches to compose paintings in his studio during the winter. One of Cole’s most effective landscape paintings, 'The Ox-Bow' (1846), was the result of pencil studies that he made in Massachusetts. Cole’s scenes of the Hudson River valley, reverently recorded, echo the loneliness and mystery of the North American forests. Cole could paint direct and factual landscapes recorded in minute detail, but he was also capable of producing grandiose and dramatic imaginary vistas using bold effects of light and chiaroscuro. When the human figure appears in his works, it is always subordinate to the majesty of the surrounding landscape.


Thomas Cole's First Studio in the Catskill, N.Y., by John Wm. Falconer.


Cole spent the years 1829-32 and 1841-42 abroad, mainly in Italy. He lived in Florence with the American sculptor Horatio Greenough. When Cole returned to the United States, he painted five huge canvases for a series titled 'The Course of Empire' (1836). The series was acquired by The New-York Historical Society in 1858 as a gift of the New-York Gallery of Fine Arts. These paintings are allegories on the progress of mankind based on the count de Volney’s Ruines; ou, méditations sur les révolutions des empires (1791).

The series of paintings depicts the growth and fall of an imaginary city, situated on the lower end of a river valley, near its meeting with a bay of the sea. The valley is distinctly identifiable in each of the paintings, in part because of an unusual landmark: a large boulder is precariously situated atop a crag overlooking the valley. Some critics believe this is meant to contrast the immutability of the earth with the transience of man.

A direct source of literary inspiration for The Course of Empire paintings is Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812–18). Cole quoted this verse, from Canto IV, in his newspaper advertisements for the series:
There is the moral of all human tales;
'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory - when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption - barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page...

[ © britannica.com ]

Shortly before he died, Cole began still another series, 'The Cross of the World', which was of a religious nature.

Durand’s well-known painting Kindred Spirits (1849), painted in Cole’s memory the year after his death, paid tribute to Cole’s close friendship with the poet William Cullen Bryant.

Thomas Cole is regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School, an American art movement that flourished in the mid-19th century and was concerned with the realistic and detailed portrayal of nature but with a strong influence from Romanticism. This group of American landscape painters worked between about 1825 and 1870 and shared a sense of national pride as well as an interest in celebrating the unique natural beauty found in the United States. The wild, untamed nature found in America was viewed as its special character; Europe had ancient ruins, but America had the uncharted wilderness. As Cole's friend William Cullen Bryant sermonized in verse, so Cole sermonized in paint. Both men saw nature as God's work and as a refuge from the ugly materialism of cities. Cole clearly intended The Voyage of Life to be a didactic, moralizing series of paintings using the landscape as an allegory for religious faith.