That Wilder Image: The Dilemma of Thomas Cole
Thomas Cole, father of the nativist approach to landscape painting called the Hudson River School, never heard that term spoken in his lifetime. It came to be applied to the early nature painters in derision by the ascendant Dusseldorf school painters of the 1870s. A nativist but not a native, Cole was born in Lancashire, England, on February 1, 1801. He arrived on these shores with his parents at Philadelphia on July 3, 1818. There he worked as an engraver’s assistant and then traveled to the West Indies before joining his parents in the textile trade in Steubenville, Ohio in mid-1819. His “western” period included some time in Pittsburgh as well before he returned to Philadelphia in 1824, where he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, drawing from classical casts and old master paintings. But no one detected any glimmer of talent, let alone greatness, until Thomas Cole moved to New York in April 1825.
Living in a garret of his father’s house in Greenwich Street, he produced four pictures that he bravely priced at $10 each and sold them all. This gained for him the interest of a neighboring merchant, George W. Bruen, who paid Cole’s steamboat fare up the Hudson that summer to explore the Catskills. Returning with sketches, Cole executed three paintings that were “exhibited” in the window of Michael Paff’s frame shop at 221 Broadway. Passing by one day John Trumbull, the revered historical painter, was struck by their merit and purchased one, Kaaterskill Upper Fall, Catskill Mountains (now lost) for $25 and invited the young painter to call on him. On his arrival, the elder artist was impressed by Cole’s modesty. “You surprise me,” he said, “at your age to paint like this. You have already done what I, with all my years and experience, am yet unable to do.” This legendary moment has also come down to us as conversation in which Trumbull said to William Dunlap that “this youth [Cole] has done what I have all my life attempted in vain.”
Days later Dunlap purchased another of the paintings in the window, Lake with Dead Trees, also for $25. Asher Durand, who bought the last of the three frame-shop paintings, View of Fort Putnam (lost until the 1990s, when it was found in a warehouse after a fire), said of Cole, “His fame spread like fire.”
Commissions poured in as Trumbull introduced Cole to the city’s small circle of private collectors. Dunlap wrote articles lauding the prodigy’s self-taught technique, the inspired product of his enterprising youth and “Americanness.” He exhibited all three paintings at the American Academy of Fine Arts in autumn. While Durand owned his 1825 Cole until he died in 1886, Dunlap and Trumbull were soon convinced to sell theirs, at a combined price of $125, to Philip Hone, New York’s mayor in 1825-26.
In 1833 Hone would write in his celebrated diary, “I think every American is bound to prove his love of country by admiring Cole.” Cole the nature painter, however, had not yet become a naturalized American. His heart was surely in the American wilderness — in particular the Catskill Mountains and Cedar Grove, the Thomson family home in the village of Catskill where he established his studio (and met his future bride, Thomson niece Maria Bartow) in the epochal summer of 1825. Yet his was a wandering mind, irresistibly drawn to his native Europe, where tastes were elevated and reputations were to be made. Cole wanted to be not the American Turner but a painter whose vision and craft would be foremost in any company.
Bryant had invited Cole and Durand to provide illustrations for The Talisman, a literary annual he started in 1827 and in its third issue, in 1829, he published the following sonnet, entitled “To Cole the Painter on his Departure for Europe”:
Thine eyes shall see the light of distant skies
Yet, Cole, thy heart shall bear to Europe’s strand
A living image of thy native land,
Such as on thine own glorious canvass lies.
Lone lakes - savannahs where the bison roves -
Rocks rich with summer garlands - solemn streams -
Skies where the desert eagle wheels and screams -
Spring bloom and autumn blaze of boundless groves.
Fair scenes shall greet thee where thou goest - fair,
But different - every where the trace of men,
Paths, homes, graves, ruins, from the lowest glen
To where life shrinks from the fierce Alpine air.
Gaze on them, til the tears shall dim thy sight;
But keep that earlier, wilder image bright.
This proved to be the challenge of Cole’s entire career — keeping bright that earlier, wilder image of such rugged paintings as Lake with Dead Trees. Hailed as a pioneering force in American painting, Cole had broken thrillingly from the pastoral tradition, in which serene landscapes had provided aid to contemplation. Touring Europe in 1829-32, he visited Constable’s studio and met Turner, whose paintings he professed to admire (“they appear to me, however, to have an artificial look . . . chiaroscuro, colour, form, should always be subservient to the subject, and never be raised to the dignity of an end”). Cole preferred the style of Salvatore Rosa, whom he had studied as a novice in Philadelphia.
Upon his triumphant return to America Cole began to paint The Course of Empire, the first of his three grandiose historical and allegorical series (the other two were The Voyage of Life and The Cross and the World, uncompleted at his death in 1848). “These idealized landscapes gained him a popular reputation,” Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and Holger Cahill wrote in Art in America, “but they now seem heavily laden with viscous morality.”
The returning hero of American painting was no longer a mere painter, scuffling for commissions. He was a published poet and essayist, an architect (the Ohio State capitol at Columbus is largely his design), a spiritualist, a conservationist. But America in the 1830s was an unpropitious setting for men of genius. There were now two Coles — the emotional and the cerebral, the describer and the prescriber. In a journal entry for May 10, 1838 he wrote:
“This I know, I have the ambition, the desire and industry to do as much as any man has done, the capacity I may not have; that however, has not been fairly tried; no sufficient field has yet opened to me. I do feel that I am not a mere leaf painter. I have higher conceptions than a mere combination of inanimate, uniformed nature. But I am out of place; every thing around, except delightful nature herself, conflicts with my feelings; there are few persons of real taste; and no opportunity for the true artist to develop his powers.”
Cole had made his mark in the wild, but now he felt constricted by it; no primordial wilderness was as vast as the vistas in his mind, and no painting is more illustrative of his conflicted state than The Architect’s Dream, executed for Ithiel Town who, with his partner Alexander Jackson Davis, had shaped the antebellum course of the nation’s architecture. Cole, who fancied himself an architect on Town’s level, had pushed him to approve a grand allegorical scheme on a scale much larger than what Town had in mind. When an appalled Town saw what Cole had wrought, he asked for a do-over, something more on the lines of Claude Lorrain, with manmade elements dotting a terraced natural landscape. After some discussion about litigation, Cole refused to execute another commission for Town, no matter the price, and reclaimed the painting. In storage at Cedar Grove in his lifetime, it emerged to take a place on the north wall of the front parlor after his death.
In a journal entry of May 31, 1841 Cole wrote:
“I am not the painter I should have been had there been a higher taste. Instead of working according to the dictates of feeling and imagination, I have painted to please others, in order to exist. Had fortune favored me a little more than she has, even in spite of the taste of the age, and the country in which I live, my imagination would not have been cramped as it has been….”
For all his accomplishment in founding a truly American style of painting, Cole wished to elevate landscape to a Neoplatonic ideal rather than be elevated by its natural wonder. The Hudson River School followed Cole, yes, but in the path he forsook early on.