Thomas Cole: A Transatlantic Look at America’s Greatest Landscape Painter

Sandra Bertrand


“The wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorant folly.”  Those words from Thomas Cole (1801-1848) were not the finger-wagging of another angry preacher from his pulpit.  They were the heartfelt sentiments of the country’s foremost landscape artist and arguably one of the earliest advocates for the protection of the natural world. 


There’s no question that masterworks like The Course of Empire series (1834–36) and The Oxbow (1836), centerpieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition of Cole’s greatness, are proudly claimed by American enthusiasts as their own.  This showing marks the 200th anniversary of Cole’s arrival in America.  What the Met has done, however, is to focus on the artist’s development through his trips to England and Italy, combined with a well-researched chronological picture of his nascent visual responses to the New World, ending with his late influences on the likes of Frederic Edwin Church, Asher Durant and others who would become the seminal artists of the Hudson River School, which Cole founded. 


Born in 1801 in Bolton-Le-Moors near Manchester, England, the artist was inevitably   moved by the smoky, soot-filled towns of his youth.  Viewers have the rare opportunity to see upon entering the first section of the exhibit, Coalbrookdale by Night, a haunting urban nightscape ablaze with factory fires looming in the background.  (The Coalbrookdale Company furnaces were in operation until 1779.) This painting by Philip James de Louthenberg—created the same year as Cole’s birth—depicts the Madelay Wood, or Bedlam, and came to symbolize the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. 


When the family emigrated to the States in 1818, Cole was quickly apprenticed to a textile producer and wood engraver in Philadelphia.  But it was a move to Manhattan at 22 that exposed him not only to the Hudson River Valley for inspiration but to the schooling he so urgently desired. 


He quickly came to the attention of John Trumbull, the president of the New York Academy of Design who in turn introduced the young man to wealthy patrons. There was excitement in the air.  After all, the Erie Canal had just opened; the possibility of western expansion and trade was inevitable.  An early product of the landscape’s effect on Cole is View of Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (1827).  Here we see a perfect example of wilderness in a dark majestic mountain with the blasted tree trunks of a lightning storm on the left of the canvas, while the valley below provides a peaceful space for human contemplation.


Still, a happy family life with five children, combined with a deep reverence for the New World was not enough to satisfy his artistic ambitions.  Thomas Cole’s Journey – Atlantic Crossings is a richly-layered examination of his encounters with John Constable, John Shaw and perhaps, most importantly, his exposure to the “mad genius” J.M.W. Turner. 


Turner’s Snowstorm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812) is one of the most stirring works on display and one can only imagine the effect of those brash and errant brushstrokes on the already amazingly accomplished Cole. The initial shock of encountering the Suffolk painter Constable’s Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (1824) with its turbulent view of a storm shower at sea must have similarly moved Cole.  Likewise, the force of John Martin’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1820)—filled with a biblical wrath against the Babylonian king—carries the same power depicting human corruption. Here was a journey of genius encountering genius.   



Cole was no itinerant Romantic who took his travels lightly.  Following his extensive travels throughout England and Italy, he wrote “Essay on American Scenery”: “The most distinctive and perhaps the most impressive, characteristic of American scenery is its wildness….in civilized Europe the primitive features have long since been destroyed or modified.” What he could make us see of the American wilderness was foremost in his mind: “Such scenes affect the mind with a more deep-toned emotion than that in which the hand of man has touched.”  He would present us with a moral message we could choose or not choose to embrace.


The Oxbow, The Connecticut River near Northampton (1836) is one of the central masterpieces of this exhibit, once again addressing nature untamed with the inevitable advent of civilization. A darkly vulnerable landscape is played out against the order of agriculture, with crops growing in the calm of a sun-stroked sky. It’s a gorgeous composition, the eye traversing the snaking river throughout.


The most riveting and unforgettable part of the exhibit is Cole’s five-part series, The Course of Empire, (1835-36), which depicts the same landscape over generations.  From a state of natural innocence to the consummation of empire, ending in decline and desolation, it is surely the artistic culmination of a great artist’s works.


It is impossible to view this work without feeling the overriding passion of the artist to tell the story—at what cost the human endeavor?  Considering environmental erosion—the reminders of global warning from the scientific community, and the constant flux of floods and wildfires in the daily news—Cole’s message could reverberate with today’s populace with more force than our ancestors acknowledged, their spirits still ablaze with the promise of Manifest Destiny.


Cole left an indelible mark on other members of the Hudson River School, chief among these Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) and Asher B. Durand (1796-1886).  Church was a consummate Romantic, a masterful painter of light in panoramic settings both here and in South America.  Durand was a devoted friend of his mentor, known for his paintings of trees, rocks, and foliage, accompanying Cole on many sketching expeditions in the Adirondacks. 


The Hudson River School painters and their proponents fell into decline for decades, replaced by the demands of later generations, hungry for newer ways of looking at the world and its ever-changing scene.  Perhaps it’s time to look again, at the majesty and beauty of a landscape, in Cole’s vision as well as the one outside the doors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

(Thomas Cole’s Journey – Atlantic Crossings is on view through May 13, 2018.)


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief arts critic.


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