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Thomas Cole

Landscape painting was an extremely important time during the middle of the
nineteenth century. One of the leading practitioners of landscape painters in
America was Thomas Cole. He went to many places seeking the natural world in
which he used direct observation to show his audience the untainted nature by
man. His works helped to find goodness in American land and to help Americans
take pride in their unique geological features created by god. Thomas Cole
inspired many with his brilliant works by bringing satisfaction among the people
who were trying to find “the truth” (realism) through the works of others.

Thomas Cole was born on February 1, 1801 in Bolton, Lancashire, England. Due to
financial problems experienced by his family, at the age of fourteen Cole found
work as a textile printer and wood engraver in Philadelphia. In 1819, Cole
returned to Ohio where his parents resided. Here Cole learned the oil painting
techniques of a portrait painter named Stein. During this time Cole was
extremely impressed by what he saw in the landscapes of the New World and how
different they were from the small town of England where he had come from. Art
came to Cole naturally, he taught himself, and one day set out to observe nature
and the wilderness. He began painting pictures by first making oil sketches of
American rocks, trees, sunsets, plants, animals, as well as distant Indians.

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From these sketches he formed several paintings. He is famous for his
allegorical collection called the “The Course of Empire” and is well-known
for his Landscape paintings, “The Oxbow,” “The Woodchopper,” and “The
Clove, Catskills.” In January of 1826, Cole was known for the being the
founder of the National Academy of Design. During this time many people wanted
Cole to paint pictures of American scenery for them, but his main goal, he says,
was to create a “higher style of landscape that could express moral or
religious meanings.” Cole continued to paint and in 1836 he married Maria
Barstow and settled in Catskill, New York. Catskill was the place where he
sketched a portrait of the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River. From these
paintings he influenced a lot of other artists such as Frederick Edwin Church
along with Albert Bierstadt. Cole died on February 11, 1848 due to an illness
and was remembered by many whom he helped to see the true vision of America.

Thomas Cole led the first American school of Landscape, called the Hudson River
School. This school included many leading artist such as Asher Brown Durand,
Thomas Doughty, as well as the second generation of artists such as Frederick
Edwin Church, Sanford Gifford, and Albert Bierstadt. These painters shared a
common background. They were Romantic Realists who found great wonders in the
countryside of the New World. They searched the Hudson Valley and areas of New
England to find unique images of America. These realists combined detailed
panoramic images with moralistic insights, which they obtained from famous works
of literature of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Bryant. They saw the landscape
as having a feeling of hopefulness, divinity, and harmony. This school was an
important part of the American culture. Many neighboring countries had crushed
America during the time of war and peace. Since that time, Americans yearned to
see their nation survive. In his paintings, Cole seems to focus on an ideal
America. He does this by painting vistas that mix both idealism and realism. He
impressed several of his colleagues teaching them that a landscape painter must
have strength, determination, and should be willing to conquer the hazards of
the weather and terrain in order to achieve success. In 1825, an artist named
John Trumball discovered Cole’s work in the window of a frame shop. Trumball
purchased many of Cole’s paintings and this was brought to the attention of
many critics who loved Cole’s style. The success of the Hudson River School
led to the formation of the National Academy of Design. In the beginning of the
1800’s, artists such as Thomas Cole painted pictures of the East and closer to
the Hudson Valley. By the 1850’s artists began to travel further into the west
and distant places such as the South American Tropical environments to capture a
more spectacular American wilderness. The result of Cole’s first sketch on
this trip up the Hudson River inspired a new generation of artists to follow his
direction. “The Course of the Empire,” painted by Thomas Cole, was one of
his famous allegorical works that dealt with the stages of an empire. This
painting is separated into five stages: The Savage State, The Pastoral State,
The Consummation of Empire, Destruction, and Desolation. These canvases portray
the relationship between man and nature. Cole believed that human empires and
civilizations were not permanent. Throughout history, empires have risen and
fallen. He is trying to say that man can dominate and create a civilization, but
he will soon return to destruction and failure. In this scenery, Cole painted
each picture in the same location, but used different seasons, time, and weather
conditions to come up with an appropriate mood for each of his paintings. The
message Cole gives out for this painting is that nature has the supreme control,
and no matter what man does, his actions cannot stop anything. In his first
canvas, “The Savage State,” a bay with grassy green land is seen on the near
side. On the far side there is smoke rising from the colony of teepees and a
noticeable mountain. The atmosphere of the painting seems dark and untamed.

Broken trees, thick underbrush, and a hunter trying to kill a deer can be seen
in the foreground. From a far distance one can see the fire and gathering of the
savages. The hunters are perceived as wild because they are running near a
stream with their weapons, such as bows and spears and are ready to attack for
food. The dark gray clouds in this painting hover about the mountain, while the
water remains to show its roughness by crashing against the shore. This work of
art represents the “Primitive” state of the natural world in the presence of
man. Thomas Cole writes in his prose description of this stage, “The Empire is
asserted, although to a limited degree, over sea, land, and the animal
kingdom” (qtd. in Parry156). In his second section, called “The Pastoral
State,” the area is the same, but the perspective of the painting has slightly
changed. Unlike the first stage with its broken trees, this stage is tamed and
ordered. There are beautiful green grass fields in the scene, which may show
that men have tamed the area in order to suit themselves. This painting shows
several people being busy in their daily lives and some even relaxing. For
example, shepherds can be seen as well as thinkers, imperial soldiers, and women
working on chores at the stream with their children. The animals are being used
for agriculture work and some are grazing. More houses and different sorts of
building styles can be seen compared to the first stage painting. In this
painting, the mood appears to be calm and pleasant just like the way the people
are enjoying themselves. Overall, this image represents a state in which man has
changed nature to suit himself by taming the ones that are barbaric and being
more civilized about the essential quality of nature. The third portion of this
painting is “The Consummation of Empire.” There are great advances in this
painting than the first two. Roads and other structures have been built. The
water is calm, there are a few clouds, and two columns can be seen marking the
entrance to the bay. A lot more people are present in this setting than the
previous stages. There are crowds of people seen walking on luxurious walkways,
boats, and the buildings. The environment in this painting shows human beings as
being prosperous and abundant. They have dominated nature by changing the
natural world to fit them. The fourth part of the series is “Destruction.”
In this scene, warriors are attacking the community and nothing can be seen but
massacres and destruction. Fighting is going on everywhere while the dead and
the dying lay around the walkways and near the buildings. The columns that were
seen in the third stage by the bay have been broken and so have some of the
houses. The sea is not calm and the clouds appear smoky and thick. The main
purpose of this canvas is to indicate that human empires do not last, and at
some point they may face destruction. The final part of this painting is
“Desolation.” Unlike all the other paintings, this one takes place at night.

The night is calm with the glistening moon reflecting in the bay and a few
clouds strung out in the night sky. No humans are present in this setting, but
by viewing the painting one can see evidence of human existence. Broken pillars
and ruined structures line the coast while they are being overgrown by mosses
and plants. The area is quite wild due to the awkward growing of plants
everything. The mountain still stands in its place, but alone without any human
presence. The sea shines with peacefulness. On the far side two deer can been
perceived drinking water. The point of this portrait is to let the viewer know
that nature has reclaimed the land. The deer have returned and so have the
plants and trees, but the people have not. The marks of the human beings have
become part of the natural world. Cole had many views about nature, human life
and mortality. He felt that the nation had a wild beauty. Cole said in one of
his articles, “To walk with nature as a poet is the necessary condition of a
perfect artist.” He illustrated the American landscape with a new vision, but
at the same time he did not forget to paint pictures that portray allegorical
and religious subjects. He believed that as men live and die so do plants and
animals. Cole used eroded mountains and dried up rivers to symbolize the cycles
of nature as being compared with humans. What he meant by this was that man dies
as he ages and nature also looses its agility. Sometimes Cole’s art works
represent that as the early settlement of America is passing by, a new one is
taking its place. This America that he portrays is competitive, abundant with
resources, and there is also a society ranked by class. Cole enjoyed painting
nature and he used nature in comparison to life. Another one of Cole’s finest
achievements would be “The Oxbow.” Completed in 1836, the sketches for this
painting were completed at a real place, the Connecticut River Valley. On the
left is the wilderness of the mountain. Dead trees and living trees symbolize
the cycle of nature. From a distance one can see the peaceful bend in the river,
a golden light coming from the left, a storm spotted from far, and some trees
blasted out on the near side. This picture is painted as if the audience is
taken into the moment. In the center of the painting, the artist is sitting and
painting the scene with his painting kit. The artist cannot be seen at a first
glimpse because he is extremely tiny in the picture. He gives the audience a
look at the future possibilities if they looked into the distance. The fading
storm shows that the wild will eventually be replaced by the civilized. This
scenery is beautifully shown with its bright colors and amazing developed
features. Thomas Cole did an excellent job in portraying realism in his
paintings. He helped America vision a society with possibilities, opportunities,
and abundance of resources. Not only did Cole inspire the nation; he also
influenced many artists who are now heading Cole’s way. Cole was a brilliant
man of great intelligence who stole the hearts of many. In an article written by
William Church Bryant, he says, “We might dream in his funeral oration on
Cole, that the conscious valleys miss his accustomed visits and that autumnal
glories of the woods are paler because of his departure.”
Harvey, Eleanor Jones. The Painted Sketch: American Impressions From Nature
1830-1880. Dallas: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998. Lucie-Smith, Edward. American
Realism. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994. Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History.

Rev. ed. Vol. 2. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995. 973-974. Yaeger, Bert D.

The Hudson River School: American Landscape Artists. New York: Smithmark
Publishers, 1996.


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