Sunday, August 9, 2009

Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole. This image and all others on this page courtesy of

Thomas Cole 1801-1848 was not the first American landscape painter, Thomas Birch and Thomas Doughty both preceded him. But he was the first to be a landscape "superstar" and before he died young and unexpectedly, influenced an entire generation of landscape painters and started the Hudson River school. His only actual student was Fredrick Church.

Cole immigrated from Lancashire England as a young man and worked in his family's wallpaper block printing business. Seeing landscape paintings in Philadelphia by the aforementioned Doughty and Birch in the early 1820s Cole set out to be a painter. What was new and non European that he brought to American painting was the idea of the sublimity of the wilderness. The Europeans painted the civilized landscape, nature as mans garden.

The Mt. Washington valley in New Hampshire
We are so used to the idea of unspoiled and sublimely beautiful nature today that we are unaware what a strange idea that was then. Nature was thought of as dangerous, infested heathen savages and in need of "improvement". A generation of thinkers. poets and writers like Thoreau and Emerson invented the idea of beautiful nature that was "wild" and unspoiled. An entire generation of painters fanned out from New York in imitation of Cole to paint the American wilderness, At first they went mostly to New Hampshire and up the Hudson river. But later they ventured to the American West and South America.

Mt. Chocorua, I have stood in this place and can tell you that Cole did some very serious designing and rearranging of this location. I will be painting there again soon. Below is Coles' best known painting "The Oxbow, Northampton Mass.

Paintings in this era were of course made from drawings done on location. The Hudson river painters lived in New York city and took summer sketching trips to get material to turn into paintings over the winter in the city.

Cole took several trips to Italy and did this and a number of other wonderful paintings there. When he returned he added a form of classical allegory landscapes to his repertoire. The seem to me very dated and I don't see them as being the forebearers of anything that followed them in American painting.
A generation of young painters idolized Cole and they formed a "school " of American landscape painting, I will discuss them over the next few days.
Above is a painting of the Catskill mountain house an early resort hotel in the Adirondacks. I have visited this location also, the hotel is long gone, but the view is absolutely unbelievable. It is now a state park. Below is one of the Italian views.

Below is one of his allegorical landscapes, this one is the expulsion from the garden of Eden.

Tomorrow I will advance the story to the Hudson River school and the flowering of a unique American landscape tradition.


Philip Koch said...

Thanks for the Coles- they make my morning coffee even better.

Your first image of Cole's Schroon Mt. blew me away when I first saw it way back in 1970. as I was just discovering the Hudson River School painters.

Cole's great achievements were his middle grounds and backgrounds. He'd get a terrific rhythm going back there and wrap the whole thing in an authentic-feeling atmosphere. Quite impressive. His foregrounds can be really cluttered, but considering he was blazing a trail for the landscape painters to follow it is easy to forgive him that.

willek said...

I visited Oleanna, Church's estate overlooking the Hudson last year. More impressive to me were Cole's summer digs across the river. He roomed at a farm and set up his studio in an outbuilding which is pretty much as it was when he worked there. It was rudimentary. I also took note of his "cigar box" paint box pochade kit on display in the house and many little sketches displayed there.

Gregory Becker said...

This guy is what first made me interested in landscape painting but it was Albert Bierstadt that won me over. The way that he showcased light in my opinion is unmatched.
Cole, however, was my first intoduction to theatrical lighting in a landscape.
I love this period of landscape painting.
I'm sure that you know this already but the Grand Central Academy is leading a resurgence effort called The Hudson River School of Landscape.
The results that they produce are just lovely.

Robert J. Simone said...

Good post, Stapleton, not only beneficial to painters but worthwhile reading for everyone!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks,I will bet you and I were looking at the same book. There was about one then. Did it have an orange cover and bear the title The Hudson river school?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have one of those cigar box pochade (pronounced pochade)kits too.
I would like to research and retrace their footsteps in New Hampshire. They all hung out in Conway for about a decade.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Yes I have been following their web site postings. I think they got a lot of rain this year though.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. The don't teach the kids in art school American art history,