Thomas Cole, Painter of Majestic American Landscapes

Artist Is Considered Founder of The Hudson River School

Thomas Cole's Scene from 'The Last of the Mohicans,' Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund
Photograph of Thomas Cole's 'The Last of the Mohicans,' Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund.

Barney Burstein / Getty Images

Thomas Cole was the British-born artist who became known for his paintings of American landscapes. He is considered the founder of the Hudson River School of painting, and his influence on other 19th century American painters was profound.

Cole’s paintings, and paintings by those he taught, are known to have influenced attitudes toward American expansionism during the 19th century. The glorification of the land and the panoramic views encouraged optimism toward settling the vast lands of the West. Cole, however, had a pessimistic streak which is sometimes indicated in his paintings.

Fast Facts: Thomas Cole

  • Known For: Founder of Hudson River School of painters, admired for his majestic landscapes of distinctly American scenery
  • Movement: Hudson River School (American romantic landscape painting)
  • Born: Bolton-le-Moors, Lancaster, England, 1801
  • Died: February 11, 1848 in Catskill, New York
  • Parents: Mary and James Cole
  • Spouse: Maria Bartow

Early Life and Career

Thomas Cole was born in Bolton-le-Moors, Lancaster, England, in 1801. He studied engraving briefly in England before emigrating to America with his family in 1818. The family arrived in Philadelphia and resettled in Steubenville, Ohio, where Cole's father established a wallpaper engraving business.

After becoming frustrated working in the family business, Cole taught art in a school for a brief period. He also received some painting instruction from a traveling artist, and tried striking out on his own as an itinerant portrait painter.

Thomas Cole
Portrait of Thomas Cole, American painter. Smithsonian Institution / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Cole realized he needed to be in a city with many potential patrons, and returned to Philadelphia, where he painted portraits and also found work decorating ceramics. He took classes at the Philadelphia Academy and, in 1824, had his first exhibition, which was held at the school.

In 1825 Cole moved to New York City, where he began to focus on romantic landscapes, the beautifully lit panoramas that would become his enduring style. After taking a trip up the Hudson River, he painted three landscapes, which were displayed in the window of a Manhattan art store. One of the paintings was purchased by artist John Trumbull, who was widely known for his paintings of the American Revolution. Trumbull recommended that two of his artist friends, William Dunlap and Asher B. Durand, purchase the other two.

Trumbull appreciated that Cole had been inspired by the wildness of American scenery, which other artists had seemed to ignore. On Trumbull's recommendation, Cole was welcomed into New York City's cultural world, where he became acquainted with luminaries such as poet and editor William Cullen Bryant and author James Fenimore Cooper.

Travels and Inspiration

The success of Cole’s early landscapes established him so he could devote himself to painting full-time. He began to travel in the mountains of New York State and New England after purchasing a house in Catskill, New York.

Catskill Mountain House by Thomas Cole
Photograph of "Catskill Mountain House," a painting by American landscape artist Thomas Cole. Francis G. Mayer / Getty Images

In 1829 Cole sailed to England on a trip financed by a wealthy patron. He made what was known as the "Grand Tour," visiting Paris, and then Italy. He stayed for weeks in Florence before going on to Rome, hiking much of the way. He eventually returned to New York City in 1832, having seen major works of art in Europe and having sketched scenery that would be used as material for landscapes.

In 1836 Cole married Maria Barton, whose family lived in Catskill. He settled into a fairly comfortable life as a successful artist. The self-made gentry of the region admired his work and purchased his paintings.

Major Works

A patron commissioned Cole to paint five panels which would be known as "The Course of Empires." The series of canvases essentially predicted what would become known as Manifest Destiny. The images depict an allegorical empire, and proceed from "Savage State" to "Arcadian or Pastoral State." The empire reaches its zenith with the third painting, "The Consummation of Empire," and then descends to the fourth painting, "Destruction." The series ends with the fifth painting, titled "Desolation."

The Course of Empire - Consummation by Thomas Cole
Thomas Cole's "The Course of Empire - Consummation," 1836, oil on canvas, 51 × 76 in, New York Historical Society.  Fine Art / Getty Images

During the 1830s, as Cole was painting his Course of Empires series, he was harboring gravely pessimistic thoughts about America, lamenting in his journal that he feared the end of democracy.

One of his major paintings, dating from 1836, is titled "View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow." In the painting, a pastoral area is shown along with a portion of untamed wilderness.

On close examination, the artist himself can be found in the middle foreground, on a promontory, painting the Oxbow, a bend in the river. In his own painting, Cole looks out over the tamed and orderly land, yet he is located in the wild land which is still darkened from the passing storm. He shows himself in communion with untamed American land, perhaps purposely keeping a distance from the land which has been transformed by human society.

Thomas Cole's painting
"View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm -- The Oxbow".  Getty Images

Legacy

Interpretations of Cole's work have varied over time. On the surface, his works are generally appreciated for their majestic scenes and striking use of light. Yet there are often darker elements present, and many paintings have dark areas which seem to raise questions about the artist's intent.

Cole's paintings show a profound reverence for nature, which can appear idyllic or wild and violent within the boundaries of the same canvas.

While still a very active artist, Cole became ill with pleurisy. He died on February 11, 1848. His influence on other American painters was profound.

Sources

  • "Thomas Cole." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 4, Gale, 2004, pp. 151-152. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Hudson River School of Painting." American Eras, vol. 5: The Reform Era and Eastern U. S. Development, 1815-1850, Gale, 1997, pp. 38-40. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "The Hudson River School and Western Expansion." American Eras, vol. 6: Westward Expansion, 1800-1860, Gale, 1997, pp. 53-54. Gale Virtual Reference Library.