In order to have an in-depth understanding of the Hudson River School of painting, it is necessary to know about the life of Thomas Cole. He was born in England at Bolton-le-Moors, which was a smoke-ridden industrial center for the textile industry and hardly a place of nurture for artistic talent. His cultured family had suffered bankruptcy, which meant that young Cole had to work hard to make money. He became a designer in a calico factory and hated the association with persons he considered vulgar. He routinely escaped by roaming the countryside, writing poetry and dreaming of going to America whose descriptions of romantic forests and great rivers came from books he read.
At age seventeen in 1818, Cole, with his family, immigrated to Philadelphia where ancestors had preceded them. He so fell in love with his new country that he later wrote: “I would give my left hand to identify myself with this country by being able to say I was born here.” (Flexner, History, 6) A year after his arrival, he walked 300 miles from Philadelphia to Steubenville, Ohio where his family had settled. There he briefly took art lessons from a man whose last name was Stein, and then in 1822, set out across Ohio carrying his artist tools to become an itinerant portrait painter, charging ten dollars per painting. He made many sketches, made copious notes on his surroundings, and also played the flute, which added to his ability to charm potential clients. However, he did not like portrait painting, a major reason being the forced interaction with his subjects.
For him, the experience led only to debt, and he rejoined his family, who had moved to Pittsburgh but also were impoverished. They encouraged him to find practical work to earn money and give up art, but Cole decided to experiment a bit more with his talent, and went to the woods to sketch the landscape. He took immediately to the subject matter, finding that nature stirred his soul and roused his creative energy. From the beginning, he injected his imagination into his subject, making it more than just a realistic transfer from eye to hand.
Feeling that he had found his artistic niche and knowing that studying in Europe was out of the question financially, he had only the limited goal of being represented by Philadelphia galleries, and studying how to improve his landscape painting at the Pennsylvania Academy. It was said that he haunted the Academy, and hung around so long that he was scolded for being a nuisance. Academy officials denied him admission to classes because he showed no interest in the Ancients, Old Masters, antique casts, and modeling of life figures, which were the bases of much of the school’s instruction.
He was also denied election as a Pennsylvanian Academician because of his association with landscape painting. Portraiture, such as that by Academy teachers Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) and Thomas Sully (1783-1872), were the most ‘credentialed’ artwork. Cole also learned that history painting with figures in tableaux was the ‘high style’ as exemplified by Peter Rothermel (1817-1895), and that even if he pursued landscape painting, he should do so in Europe where he could be influenced by Italian and Dutch scenes such as those of Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) and Saloman van Ruysdael (1600?-1670). (In fact, it was fifty years later, in the 1880s, before the Academy offered classes in landscape painting, and it was 1902, with the establishment of the Jennie Sesnan Gold Medal, that a prize was offered for landscape-painting excellence.)
Looking at the Academy collection, Cole was excited and humbled by landscape paintings of living Pennsylvania artists, Thomas Doughty, and Thomas Birch (1779-1851), but it was made clear to Cole that neither of these painters was taken seriously by the Academy. In retrospect, this neglect was short sighted, especially with Doughty whose work is now highly regarded because of his obvious skill and the fact he is often cited as being the first American artist of note to work exclusively as a landscapist. Although Cole is most often cited as the founder of the American landscape painting tradition, some art historians argue that in fact that credit should go to Doughty who was encouraged by portraitist Thomas Sully to look to nature. Doughty became one of the first American landscape painters to be elected to the National Academy of Design in New York. By the time Cole was beginning to focus seriously on landscape painting, Doughty was already established as “the leading landscape painter in Boston, . . . traveled extensively throughout the northeastern United States, painting rivers, mountains, and woods interiors that are memorable for their mood, tonality, and quality of light, especially the pink and gold sunset tones, rather than for their local specificity.” (Howat, 32) Unlike Thomas Cole, Doughty had no interest in creating a sense of drama in his landscapes, but, using a basic formula he knew would appeal to buyers, painted intimate, quiet, bucolic, realistic scenes.
In 1823, Cole, then a calico designer, had a cordial meeting with Doughty, in Philadelphia, and the men encouraged each other to follow their aesthetic interest. Looking back, it was a critical time in American art. Historian James Flexner wrote: “Still struggling, the young men held the future of American painting in their hands.” (Flexner, Wilder, 187-188) Thomas Birch had a background in topography and engraving that he applied to the realistic depiction of actual sites without exploration of his reaction to the site. But Cole appreciated him as well as Doughty for looking to their own surroundings for their subject matter, the land they saw in their daily lives.
In the summer of 1825, Cole took his first trip up the Hudson River and recorded his excitement when he approached the Catskills, mountains that visually combined with the wide, surging river and rich, cultivated valley land. He wrote of “a varied country through which meanders the Catskill Creek, a beautiful stream . . . ever changing in color, light and shadow. Later when he was in France, he declared the Rhine River to be “infinitely inferior in natural magnificence and grandeur” to the Hudson River. (Flexner, Wilder, 18) After his first encounter with the Hudson, Cole returned to his New York City studio and, using sketches, painted what he had seen.
Art historians date the beginning of the Hudson River School to 1825 when several of Cole’s earliest Hudson River landscapes hung in a picture framer’s shop window with prices of $25.00 each. John Trumbull, (1756-1843) historical genre painter and then President of the American Academy of Fine Arts, discovered them and immediately “snapped up Kaaterskill Falls,” (Glueck, B27) and involved two other artists, William Dunlap (1766-1839) and Asher Durand. According to manuscripts at The New York Historical Society as interpreted by James Flexner, the discovery story is as follows:
At the very moment when the waters of the Great Lakes first moved down the Hudson, a New York frame maker put on display three Hudson River views by an unknown stripling named Thomas Cole. Happening on the canvases, Trumbull saw the American land depicted in all its native peculiarity with powerful realism and yet a lover’s eye. As he gazed, the years seemed to fall from him, and he stood again, a young artist jocund in the springtime of the Republic.
Hurrying to the studio of William Dunlap, another veteran who had experienced the fertile years, Trumbull announced his discovery with one of those terrible statements that sometimes escape the lips of the very proud: ‘This young man,’ he said, ‘has done what all my life I attempted in vain to do.’
Dunlap was amazed, but as he later wrote, ‘When I saw the pictures, I found them to exceed all that this praise had led me to expect.’ He had returned with Trumbull to the frame shop. Cole, who had been summoned, stood, Dunlap continued, ‘like a school boy in the presence of the trustees’ before the two elderly painters, ‘neither of whom could produce a rival to the works he was offering for the paltry price of twenty-five dollars each. (History, 5)
For Trumbull, the work of Cole with its powerful depiction of American land was a special revelation because he, then aged 67, was America’s best-known living painter but was more depressed by his self-perceived shortcomings than proud of the attention he was receiving. Trumbull was persuaded that “the great days of American painting were over” and that as a mature painter, he had given in to popular demand for traditional styles and subjects instead of following his original conviction that American artists should chart paths through their own waters. He was disillusioned that America’s prominent painters spent more time focused on Europe than America, that they “hardly scratched their own soil” and were “men who talked great pictures and painted commercial portraits, or talked so much they hardly painted at all.” (Flexner, History, 4)
At the time that Cole’s work was being ‘discovered’, two of Trumbull’s equally famous peers, Benjamin West (1818-1854) and John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) were dead, and the other remaining famous artist, Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), was living in Boston, ravaged by tobacco and alcohol. These four artists, born on American soil but wanting to be in a center of refinement and art education opportunities, had spent much of their careers in London.
Shortly after the ‘discovery’ by Trumbull and Durand, Philip Hone, New York collector and mayor of New York from 1826 to 1827, purchased two of Cole’s paintings. Hone had become wealthy in the auction business and was quite prominent in New York society for his sophistication, good taste, stories of extensive travel, and ability to use his fortune to influence events. This acquisition of his paintings by a prominent figure helped give wide exposure and unique attention to Cole’s work because few landscape painters were active in New York at that time, and landscape views were circulated primarily as reproductions, usually in travel books.
One of Cole’s earliest patrons was Robert Gilmor, Jr. (1774-1848) of Baltimore, and he had much influence on Cole’s treatment of his subject matter. At that time Gilmor, a wealthy, well-traveled merchant, was the country’s leading collector of Old Master paintings. He asserted that Cole should always place human beings into his paintings because wild and ruggedness had little to offer unless it was countered by the character and spirit of human beings. Gilmor also asserted that an artist should paint the landscape just as God had ‘painted’ it, but that the artist could alter foreground detail of the spot from where the artist was positioned. Cole and Gilmor argued on this point, which became on ongoing debate among those early American landscape painters and continues into the 21st Century. Cole’s approach was to combine the celebration of nature’s perfections by showing realistic details with elements of romanticism that allowed him to indulge his imaginative powers. To Gilmor he replied: “If the imagination ‘is shackled’ to what the eye can see, ‘seldom will anything great be produced in painting or poetry.’ “(Flexner, Wilder, 36)
Loneliness and fear were problems for Thomas Cole found when traveling alone to paint. He wrote in his notes of a “mysterious fear” that came over him when he was among towering precipices, dark, quiet flowing water, and silence unrelieved by human voices. He also wrote of philosophical and religious conflicts within himself in that the Biblical story of Adam and Eve associated sin with humans living naturally in nature, but in nature he was finding goodness and purity of thought and feelings of being close to God. However, he was well aware of countering evil forces, and never was able to commit to the idea of nature as totally synonymous with God, the pantheism adopted by many of his successor Hudson River Valley painters. He came to the philosophy that his job as a painter was to convey both a sense of awe about nature and the idea that nature could be a civilizing, refining influence and shaping of cultured individuals. He was well aware that in order for people to have access to nature, civilizing forces had to be applied such as creating paths and roads into the wilderness so that observers had a secure vantage point. For Cole, one of his ways of taming nature or making it manageable was to impose his own sense of order on seeming chaos by organizing his canvases in certain ways.
However, Cole’s sense of order violated traditional tenets of landscape painting as prescribed by European artists. His goal was to convey the idea that nature was untamed, and was not yet amenable to the rules of domination that white settlers assumed they could impose on their new world. Cole injected the basic elements of color, mood, light, dark, figures, and spatial relationships but threw away the book relative to carefully balancing those elements against each other. Instead of a vanishing point or single area that focused the eye, Cole’s paintings had a variety of interest points and perspectives, including human figures placed in seemingly random positions, sharing the canvas with other aspects of nature equally as interesting. He had pockets of light, often nearly hidden by dark structures, and in tone he had both gloom and serenity with nothing dominant. Elements seemed to be warring, and dark colors such as blacks and browns often dominated bright colors or hues, and dull winter tones colored foliage instead of traditional cheerful colors of spring and summer.
In 1829, with a reputation established as America’s leading painter but denied admission as an Academician at the Philadelphia Academy, Thomas Cole returned to England, which he had left eleven years earlier as a poverty-ridden youth. He settled in London with the intent of educating himself to strengthen his landscape painting, but instead, the experience reinforced his own already developing inclinations. And his work was of little interest to the English, as he found out when several of his landscape paintings he submitted to the Royal Academy exhibitions were generally ignored. He called on John Constable (1776-1837), then England’s leading landscape painter, and was unimpressed by what he saw on his easels. In retrospect the main benefit to Cole of returning to England was seeing paintings by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), especially Snow Storm and Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. Cole later said that he felt he was in the presence of work by “one of the greatest landscape painters that ever lived.” Turner, who was doing leading-edge painting for his time period, produced landscapes that seemed alive with nature’s elements, and sublimity.
For Cole, seeing the luminous paintings by Turner created a lasting inspiration to inject depth, passion and dreamy, emotional qualities into his canvases. Cole also spent much time in Italy, where he painted views of ruins, architecture and panoramic landscapes and cityscapes such as scenes of Florence. With Turner as a strong influence as well as the memories of Italy and its atmospheric light, Cole developed and held to his own course of raising to historical importance the art of landscape painting through direct observation and interpretation that imparted a sacred quality to the subject.
In 1839, fully committed to painting scenes of the Hudson Valley and having finished the biggest project of his career, an allegorical series about sublime wilderness and civilization titled The Course of Empire (1833-36), he moved to Catskill. There, he and his wife and four children lived in a house built in 1816 by her uncles on property known as Cedar Grove. One of the uncles, Alexander Thomson, continued ownership, and the Coles shared living space with the Thomson family. They had two-connecting bedrooms on the second floor in a household that sometimes held up to sixteen inhabitants, and was a marked contrast to the quiet and serenity that Cole sought in nature. However, he did find time alone. Thanks to an understanding wife, he was freed to “set out on wild rambles through storms or far into uninhabited mountains.” (Flexner, History, 44-45)
From 1839 to 1847, he set up a studio in part of a grain storage barn at what is now 219 Spring Street. Restored and called “Old Studio”, it is billed in 2006 as the oldest artist atelier in America. Here he hosted his wealthy New York City patron, Luman Reed, as well as close friend, Asher Durand, William Sydney Mount (1807-1868), and prominent literary men, William Cullen Bryant and James Fenimore Cooper. For the last sixteen months before his untimely death in 1848 at age 47, he worked out of another studio, called the “New Studio”, on the Cedar Grove property.