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 Thomas Cole  (1801 - 1848)

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: landscape, historical and allegorical painting

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Thomas Cole
from Auction House Records.
Catskill Mountain House
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:

The following was written and compiled by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California:

Thomas Cole  was born on February 1, 1801 in Bolton-le-Moors, Lancashire, England.  Cole was the shy and sensitive son of an English immigrant who settled in Steubenville, Ohio, where he arrived in 1818.  He had set up shop as a wallpaper maker and Thomas helped his father with designs and was shown how to paint likenesses by an itinerant portrait painter who traveled from town to town in early America.  He set out to be a traveling portrait painter himself.  Yet as he rested by the roadside he found himself powerfully drawn to the wilderness surrounding him, he decided to become a landscape painter and left for New York City where prosperous merchants were eager to purchase paintings for their new mansions.  During the summer he embarked on what was to be one of many sketching trips up the Hudson River Valley.

Cole studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1823 and in 1825 he moved to New York where he was discovered by John Trumbull, William Dunlap and Asher Durand who saw his sketches of the Hudson River Valley and the Catskill Mountains in a shop window.  They bought a painting, and his reputation was made.

The landscapes he painted from 1825 onward sold almost as fast as the oil was dry, and made Cole the founder of the Hudson River school of landscapists.  With success, and yielding to the moralistic temper of the times, Cole in his later years immersed himself in elaborate allegories, for which he was widely acclaimed by his contemporaries.  He typically used the image of the Native American as a symbol of untamed nature.  His racism was well documented and deeply entrenched.  Cole was elected a member of the National Academy in 1826.  He was represented in the Metropolitan Museum and the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C.

In addition to his activites as a painter, Cole was a prolific poet, writer and theorist.  He kept many journals and wrote poetry and essays, including a well-known tract on American scenery of 1835.  He eventually settled in the village of Catskill, New York, marrying Maria Bartow in 1837.  His relatively brief life had been a busy round of travel, exhibitions, commissions, lectures and publications.  He even found time to act as mentor to the young Hudson Frederick Church.  He had an influential role in the New York art community, and fostered the careers of many  River School artists.  He was especially close to Asher Durand.  Cole's unexpected death on February 11 in 1848 at the age of forty-seven was deeply mourned in New York art and literary circles.  Both his art and his legacy provided the foundation for the native landscape school that dominated American painting until the late 1860s.

Sources include:
Time Magazine, June 6, 1969 and January 24, 1949  
Mantle Fielding's Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors and Engravers, 1986-7 
Elizabeth Licata in Art & Antiques, April 1994
From the internet, Webmuseum, Paris


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Known as the influential founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, Thomas Cole created detailed views of nature and was a key figure in making landscape painting a respectable pursuit of American artists in the eyes of the public.

He was a religious man and a romantic, which was conveyed in the tone of his paintings and the moral and religious meaning he attached to his work.  He was also one of the founders of The National Academy of Design in New York.

Cole was born in Lancashire, England, and apprenticed to an engraver of textile designs for calico.  He came to Philadelphia in 1819 with his family and worked briefly for an engraver, shipped to the West Indies, and traveled by foot to join his family in Steubenville, Ohio.  There he learned the rudiments of painting from an itinerant artist named Stein, and he began sketching along the Monongahela River.

He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1823, and in 1825, moved to New York where he was discovered by John Trumbull, William Dunlap, and Asher Durand who saw his sketches of the Hudson River Valley and the Catskill Mountains in a shop window.  They bought the painting, and his reputation was made.  In 1836, he settled in the village of Catskill.

He spent several years in Europe and from English theater, developed a great interest in panoramas.  He was not overly impressed with European art, being much more interested in what he saw and thought about in the United States.  While in Europe, he made a plan for a monumental series of large paintings that would trace the evolution of civilization, and when he returned to America, the series was commissioned by collector Luman Reed.  In 1835, Cole completed the work titled The Course of Empire, which is in the collection of the New York Historical Society.

In the 1830s, he was at the height of his powers, painting both landscapes and allegorical works and earning much money for them.   His premature death from pneumonia was considered a great loss to America.

Source:
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Thomas Cole (1801-1848) was born in Lancaster England. He was trained as an engraver, applying his skills as a wood block cutter in the calico fabric industry. Academically, Cole did not have formal art training, so his inspiration for paintings came from poetry and literature of the day.

His family immigrated to America when Cole was seventeen.  He remained in Philadelphia one year longer as his family moved onto Ohio.  Eventually, in 1823 the entire family moved to Pittsburgh, which allowed the young Cole to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art and also to begin a series of detailed drawings of the developing industrial city.  This fortuitous combination became the foundation of Thomas Cole's later landscape style--painstaking detail and accuracy.

For professional reasons Cole moved onto New York City in 1825.  His work quickly came to the attention of collectors and critics.  From talk with many of his colleagues Cole realized that he needed to travel to Europe to observe first hand the great masters.  He returned to his native England and then moved onto Paris and Rome, where he formulated richly aesthetic themes and ideas.  Truly a romantic spirit, Thomas Cole sought to express elevated ideas through his painting.

Cole quickly absorbed the lofty ideas of European history painting, and he encouraged Asher B. Durand and Frederic Church, the two painters that would continue in his tradition.  Cole died, unexpectedly, after a brief and minor illness. Undeniably, his legacy left a firm foundation for the Hudson River School to build upon.


Submitted by Susan Slater Tanner

Biography from MB Fine Art, LLC:
Thomas Cole, born in Lancashire, England, was trained as an engraver of woodblocks used for printing calico. Because he did not have any formal education in art, his aesthetic ideas derived from poetry and literature, influences that were strongly to mark his paintings. The Cole family emigrated to America in 1818, but Thomas spent a year alone in Philadelphia before going on to Steubenville, Ohio, where his family had settled. He spent several years in Steubenville designing patterns and probably also engraving woodblocks for his father's wallpaper manufactory.

He made his first attempts at landscape painting after learning the essentials of oil painting from a nebulous itinerant portraitist named Stein. In 1823, Cole followed his family to Pittsburgh and began to make detailed and systematic studies of that city's highly picturesque scenery, establishing a procedure of painstakingly detailed drawing that was to become the foundation of his landscape painting.

"During another stay in Philadelphia, from 1823 to 1824, Cole determined to become a painter and closely studied the landscapes of Thomas Doughty and Thomas Birch exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy, His technique improved greatly and his thinking on the special qualities of American scenery began to crystallize. Cole next moved to New York, where the series of works he produced following a sketching trip up the Hudson River in the summer of 1825 brought him to the attention of the city's most important artists and patrons. From then on, his future as a landscape painter was assured. By 1829, when he decided to go to Europe to study firsthand the great works of the past, he had become one of the founding members of the National Academy of Design and was generally recognized as America's leading landscape painter.

"In Europe, Cole's visits to the great galleries of London and Paris and, more important, his stay in Italy from 1831 to 1832, filled his imagination with high-minded themes and ideas. A true Romantic spirit, he sought to express in his painting the elevated moral tone and concern with lofty themes previously the province of history painting. When he returned to America, he found an enlightened patron in the New York merchant Luman Reed, who commissioned from him "The Course of Empire" (1836), a five-canvas extravaganza depicting the progress of a society from the savage state to an apogee of luxury and, finally, to dissolution and extinction.

Most New York patrons, however, preferred recognizable American views, which Cole, his technique further improved by his European experience, was able to paint with increased authority. Although he frequently complained that he would prefer not to have to paint those so-called realistic views, Cole's best efforts in the landscape genre reveal the same high-principled, intellectual content that informs his religious and allegorical works. A second trip to Europe, in 1841-42, resulted in even greater advances in the mastery of his art: his use of color showed greater virtuosity and his representation of atmosphere, especially the sky, became almost palpably luminous.

"Cole's remarkable oeuvre, in addition to naturalistic American and European views, consisted of Gothic fantasies ("The Departure and The Return", 1837), religious allegories (The Voyage of Life, 1840), and classicized pastorals ("The Dream of Arcadia", 1838). He consistently recorded his thoughts in a formidable body of writing: detailed journals, many poems, and an influential essay on American scenery. Further, he encouraged and fostered the careers of Asher B. Durand and Frederic E. Church, two artists who would most ably continue the painting tradition he had established. Though Cole's unexpected death after a short illness sent a shock through the New York art world, the many achievements that were his legacy provided a firm ground for the continued growth of the school of American landscape."

Biography from Spanierman Gallery (retired):
Often considered the father of American landscape painting as well as the founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole emigrated to America from Lancashire, England, when he was age eighteen. After spending a year in Philadelphia, Cole joined his family in the town of Steubenville, Ohio. While in England, Cole had been an apprentice to a designer of calico prints, and in Steubenville, he found work drawing patterns and possibly engraving woodblocks for his father's paper-hanging business.

In Steubenville, Cole also began to explore landscape painting after gaining some rudimentary instruction in oil painting from a portrait painter named Stein. In 1823, Cole went with his family to Pittsburgh, where he again became an assistant in his father's business and made landscape sketches in his free time.

Inspired by the landscapes of Thomas Doughty and Thomas Birch, which he saw at the Pennsylvania Academy during a stay in Philadelphia from 1823 to 1825, Cole became dedicated to a career as a landscape painter. In Philadelphia, he began to consider the distinctive characteristics of American scenery, but it was not until he moved to New York in 1825 that he turned his thoughts to his art.

The works he produced after a sketching trip up the Hudson River in the summer of 1825 attracted the attention of New York's prominent artists and patrons. From this time until the end of his career, Cole enjoyed fame as a pre-eminent American landscape painter, and created works that influenced a generation of native artists who followed his lead in focusing on the sublime beauty and grandeur of the country's wilderness scenery.

In 1829, Cole became one of the founding members of the National Academy of Design, and departed on a trip to Europe. Traveling through England, France, and Italy, he viewed works by the Old Masters and contemporary artists and explored European landscape sites. A second trip to Italy, from 1831 to 1832, inspired Cole with ideas of exploring high-minded and grand themes. In landscape paintings he created on his return, he expressed the moral issues and lofty ideals that were usually the exclusive domain of history painters.

After his return to America, Cole settled in the town of Catskill, New York, but he remained active in the art scene of New York City, keeping ties with fellow artists and collectors. Among his acquaintances was the New York merchant, Luman Reed, who commissioned him to create "The Course of Empire, 1836 "(New-York Historical Society), a five-canvas epic that depicts the cyclical development of a society from a savage wilderness to a grand and luxurious state, to a condition of corruption and destruction, and finally to dissolution.

In the years that followed, Cole created both naturalistic views and imaginary scenes invested with moral or literary meaning. He rendered the two-canvas Gothic fantasy, "The Departure and The Return" (Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.) in 1837 and the four-canvas religious allegory, "The Voyage of Life" (two versions, Munson- Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York, and National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) in 1840. Other allegorical landscapes include "Dream of Arcadia", 1838"(Denver Art Museum) and "The Architect's Dream", 1840 (Toledo Museum of Art).

Despite the esteem with which Cole's allegorical works were regarded, his patrons preferred his identifiably American scenes. Cole was disappointed at this preference, but over the course of his career, he had steadily improved his landscape technique as may be seen especially in the works he created following his return from his second European sojourn, which demonstrated the impact of his exposure to European sources. Cole's pure landscapes demonstrate many of the principles and intellectual ideas reflected in his allegorical works. He expressed a romantic viewpoint, finding symbolic meaning in nature. As he wrote: "A scene is rather an index to feelings and associations."

In addition to his activities as a painter, Cole was a prolific poet, writer, and theorist. He kept many journals and wrote poetry and essays, including his well known tract on American scenery of 1835.

Although his only student was the painter Frederic Church, Cole had an influential role in the New York art community, and fostered the careers of many Hudson River School artists. He was especially close to Asher B. Durand. Cole's unexpected death in 1848 at the young age of forty-seven was deeply mourned in New York art and literary circles. Both his art and his legacy provided the foundation for the native landscape school that dominated American painting until the late 1860s.

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Thomas Cole is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Hudson River School Painters
Paris Pre 1900



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