The Life and Paintings of Thomas Cole

Categories: ArtistsPainting

When Thomas Cole painted the View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains, he wrote this in his diary:

“The mists were resting on the vale of the Hudson like drifted snow: tops of distant mountains in the east [the Berkshires] were visible-things of another world. The sun rose from bars of pearly hue. The mist below the mountain began first to be lighted up, and the trees on the tops of the lower hills cast their shadows over the misty surface- innumerable streaks.

A line of light on the extreme horizon was very beautiful. Seen through the breaking mists the fields were exquisitely fresh and green. Though dark, the mountainside was sparkling; and the Hudson where it was uncovered to sight, slept in deep shadow.”

Cole’s poetic and romantic view of the natural world is characteristic of the artist, who came to New York City from England at the age of twenty-four. Within his first year in America he traveled up the Hudson River to the recently opened Catskill Mountain House Hotel, returning with a portfolio of sketches.

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After exhibiting three oil paintings based on these sketches Cole caught the attention of three important American Painters, John Trumbull, Asher B. Durand, and William Dunlap, who purchased the paintings and launched Cole’s career.’ In an era where the taste for landscape was already present, (despite being looked down upon by European standards), Cole was confronted with a genre firmly entrenched in more aristocratic interest. Over time, though, he would maintain the English fundamentals of the beautiful, the sublime, and the picturesque while altering its theme and purpose, both appealing to a different audience and redefining the American Landscape.

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As an autodidact, Cole was grounded in 18th century English landscape painting technique, which allowed him to incorporate the earlier fundamentals. He was also well read in English poetry and the canon of English literature causing Cole’s approach was both ‘literary and poetic.” Though Cole’s style would evolve over the years he painted, even including European landscapes as he undertook the grand tour, his moralistic views of the natural world and ambivalence towards colonization never changed and allowed him to complete “some of the most compelling early renderings of what would eventually become the mythic American wilderness.” Instead of garnering significance from a mythical narrative, the American landscape gained importance from the culture of the young nation. In his Essay on American Scenery Cole outlines the distinction. “You see no ruined tower to tell of outrage,” he writes, “no gorgeous temple to speak of ostentation; but freedom’s offspring–peace, security, and happiness, dwell there, the spirits of the scene.”

This attitude elevated the status of the American Landscape during Cole’s time, revolutionizing the way the genre was received. In Europe, landscape painting, like still life, was looked down upon based on a standard set up by schools of art after the renaissance. But Thomas Cole escaped the belittling of his genre by the building of a new approach to landscape based upon the unique American culture present. Although America lacked legendary associations, it had been sanctified by the great struggle for freedom, and therefore, Cole believed that “America’s associations are not so much of the past as of the present and future.” In this, the vast American wilderness became its own association and narrative, the wilderness before the pioneers its own mythic allegory of a new nation. “Where the wolf roams, the plow glistens,” Cole writes, “on the gray crag shall rise the temple and tower—mighty deeds shall be done on the now pathless wilderness.”

Though painting Thomas Cole as a herald of the new age of industrialization and colonization is an attractive point of view, it is incorrect and would ignore the better half of his allegorical paintings that outline his moralistic perspective. Thomas Cole’s arguably most prominent artistic themes were those of Growth and Decay, as well as the passage of time. In his focus on the passage of time, especially in one of his most ambitious allegorical works, the Course of Empire, Cole roots himself as firmly ambivalent to the ideals of progress. Wary of the great empires of the past, Cole created a narrative describing an empire’s rise to glory but inevitably warring fall, leaving nothing but ruins in the last frame to commemorate its existence and pollute a once immaculate environment.  This cautionary tale seems to contradict the Cole described earlier who glorifies the American future, even with triads of paintings depicting pre-colonial America’s transition to settlement. But because his allegorical paintings are making such bold moral statements, it can only be reconciled that he is fact making the same bold statements in his landscape. From this informed perspective he both encourages the inhabitance of a wild land he and offers a critique of the wild growth during the Jacksonian era, that viewed the wilderness as something to be either feared or exploited. Cole is presenting this landscape as heralding of the past and a call for respect into the future, a glorification of the pastoral but harsh commentary against the abuse of nature for the exploits of man.

From a rounded understanding of Thomas Cole’s landscape the iconography in his paintings of uninterrupted wilderness begin to stand out. A recognizable gnarled tree trunk amidst a short foreground of clay precipice and unkempt vegetation provides a heavy anchor of sublime as the viewer overlooks a steep valley trailing into the horizon of a morning sunrise. An unseen sun illuminates a hazy cumulous cloud and shines off of the twisting Hudson River, an optimistic symbol of new life that balances the dying tree trunk. Reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea, morning mists roll through the valley an drift past mountaintops lofting the viewer into the heights of the mountains and romanticizing the American landscape. The light and shadowsof the painting, though, are difficult to reconcile upon closer examination. The mountain in the distance is cast in shadow while the precipice of the foreground is brightly illuminated.

This is an example of just one of the stylistic alterations that Cole made in order to depict his ideal landscape. His liberties, though topographically accurate, would include changes in composition scenery and lighting. Other examples of this style can be scene in his operatic depictions of scenes in The Falls of Kaaterskill, and in series of paintings of Mt. Chocorua. As these painting are aggrandized, their landscapes grow more dramatic than they would appear in a mere photograph. What Thomas Cole was capturing in these landscapes was not a literal likeness of the terrain but rather a perception cultivated by sketches and guides and executed from memory, time sifting away the less memorable.” He transmits a respect of the natural world into his art Cole by evoking the natural raw physical beauty found in the wilderness and the sublime terrific awe of the wilderness, orchestrated in a picturesque composition that evolves a landscape into a sentiment.

As seen in the subject of the painting, the tradition of painting that Thomas Cole later inspired is aptly named the Hudson River School. Indeed, a theme of the movement was making trips north by the river to paint the wilderness on the edge of civilization. However as it branched out into the mid 19th century many other strata of landscape paintings emerge, in the serenity of Martin Johnson Heade, the luminism of Fitz Henry Lane, and the drama of Albert Bierstadt. Much of these new facets of landscape were made possible by Cole’s emphasis on the beautiful, the picturesque, and the sublime. After Cole died in 1848 the Hudson River School continued to grow, especially with pioneers of westward expansion. Many of the great painters of the latter half of the 19th century were those who memorialized the most magnificent landscapes of America’s west, later helping to establish national parks such as Yosemite, the Rocky Mountains, and Yellowstone. During the expansionist phase of the Hudson River School artists were more concerned with painting sensationalist landscapes of the wild-west, rather than the more subdued nature of the east.

Not all in the Hudson River School tended towards Cole’s theme of moralistic paintings whether in or out landscapes. They differed in style, with some such as Frederic Edwin Church, once a student of Cole, focusing solely on the accuracy of depiction. This devotion to accuracy spurred Church’s exploration through the mountain ranges of the west as well as through the Andes in a desire to seek the most sensational or dramatic landscape to depict. Bierstadt as mentioned earlier painted many of the grand landscapes of the west creating a ‘Grand Opera’ in painting that spoke the majesty of the nature before it, forming a voice from which to project the majesty American nature. In this, the growth of the nation is recorded not only in the subject of the American Landscape, but in how they were painted, as they were influenced by ideas of manifest destiny taking root with new ages of exploration proposing bigger and brighter futures. In context of these operatic works of the American west, the message behind Thomas Cole’s depiction of the American wilderness seems to be overshadowed. But there is a state of mind behind each of Cole’s works, created through the interplay of the beautiful, the sublime and the picturesque, that centers his work, helping to define the landscape and inspire artists for generations to come.

This state of mind reiterates a message that balances the extremes of fear and exploitation rampant in an era of industrialization. The position that Cole painted from could only have been thought of as one of utmost respect, one that molded the American Landscape into a symbol of its promise and raised it to an edenic level. It would be incorrect to say that American Landscape is a completely original style, or even that it originated with Thomas Cole. There are many others who influenced Cole, and many English teachings that influenced his art. The America Landscape that was formed by Cole is only made possible due to his synthesis of earlier traditions, and his understanding that in order to break these traditions his ideas needed to be bold and statements profound. From this he transformed the American wilderness into a mythic association of its own that took the place of the allegorical legends of Europe. By depicting the wilderness in the way he painted the ideology of a young expanding country. He returned to the past and prophesied of the future, but most importantly raised the stature of landscape painting to one of national importance and memorialized the landscape of a young country in the liberated spirit of its founding and promise of its future.

Works Cited

  1. Baigell, Matthew. Thomas Cole. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1985. Print.
  2. William H. Truettner, Alan Wallach, and Christine Stansell. Thomas Cole: Landscape into History. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1994. Print.
  3. Minks, Louise. The Hudson River School. New York: Crescent, 1989. Print.
  4. Powell, Earl A. Thomas Cole. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1990. Print.
  5. “Thomas Cole: Painting the American Landscape.” The Thomas Cole National Historic Site – Watch the Film. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2016.
  6. Avery, Kevin J. “Thomas Cole (1801-1848).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (August 2009)
  7. Avery, Kevin J. “The Hudson River School.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)
  8. Cole, Thomas. “Essay on American Scenery”. American Monthly Magazine 1, (January 1836) 1-12

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The Life and Paintings of Thomas Cole. (2021, Sep 29). Retrieved from

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