Thomas Cole
Biography of American Landscape Painter: Hudson River School.

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The Last of the Mohicans (1826)
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT.
One of the famous landscape paintings
by Thomas Cole.

Thomas Cole (1801-48)


Early Interest in Landscape Painting
John Trumbell, William Dunlap, Asher B Durand
Plein-air Painting in the Hudson Valley
Moves From Pure Landscape to Historical Themes
Style of Painting
Paintings by Thomas Cole
The Hudson River School
American Colonial Art (c.1670-1800)

For more American artists, see:
Whistler (1834-1903)
Noted for his Nocturnes, etchings.
Winslow Homer (1836-1910)
Seascapes, Civil War painting.
Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)
Famous for The Gross Clinic.

For an explanation of the
terminology, see:
Art: Definition and Meaning.

For the top painters, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For a list of the best pictures,
see: Greatest Paintings Ever.


One of the best landscape artists in America during the first half of the 19th century, and a founder of the Hudson River School, the melancholic Thomas Cole was noted for his style of romantic realism in the way he depicted the grandeur and rugged natural beauty of the American wilderness. His conservatism, and fear of environmental damage to the American wilderness, made him load his later landscape painting with literary and moralizing ideas, which tended to interfere with his art. One of his pupils was Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) who maintained the Hudson River School's interest in American natural scenery, becoming America's most famous view-painter. Along with Frederic Church, and other famous frontier landscape painters like George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) and Frederic Remington (1861-1909), Cole remains one of the pioneers of American art of the 19th century.

Early Interest in Landscape Painting

Born in England, Cole worked as an apprentice engraver before emigrating with his family to the USA in 1818. It is reported that he learned the basics of drawing and oil painting from a wandering portrait painter called Stein, and then himself spent time as an itinerant artist earning a living from portraiture. Whatever the case, he had no great success with portraiture, and his interest shifted to landscape. He moved to Pittsburgh in 1823 and from there to Philadelphia in 1824, where he finished his artistic education at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, before rejoining his family in New York the following year.

John Trumbell, William Dunlap, Asher B Durand

In New York the sale of three paintings financed a summer tour of the Hudson River Valley where he painted the famous Kaaterskill Falls and the ruins of Fort Putnam. On his return to New York he placed three landscape pictures in the window of a bookstore, which attracted the attention of the painters and art collectors John Trumbull (1756-1843), William Dunlap (1766-1839) and Asher B Durand (1796-1886). Trumbull was so taken with Cole's painterly skills that he purchased one of the works and introduced him to several of his friends who also became patrons of the artist. In 1826 Cole was elected a founding member of the new National Academy.

Plein-Air Painting in the Hudson Valley

This rapid recognition led to more plein air painting trips into the Hudson Valley, where Cole eventually settled in 1827 in the village of Catskill, establishing an art studio at a farm called Cedar Grove. It was here that he completed the majority of his work. In 1836, he married Maria Bartow with whom he had five children. Greatly impressed by the natural beauty of his surroundings, Cole infused much of his early landscape art with great feeling and romantic grandeur.

One interesting but unresolved question about Cole, during the 1830s, was whether he knew anything about the Barbizon School of landscape painting, and the works of key Barbizon painters like Corot (1796-1875), or the expatriate English artist Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28).

Moves From Pure Landscape to Historical Themes

During the late 1830s, Cole began to explore history painting. He was anxious to see more works by the classical French artist Claude Lorraine (1600-82) and exponents of the English Landscape painting tradition led by JMW Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837), all of whom he greatly admired. With this aim in mind, he visited England and Italy between the years 1829-32 and 1841-1842. Afterwards, due to the encouragement he received from Turner as well as the English artist John Martin (1789-1854), he began to concentrate less on the portrayal of natural scenery and more on allegorical and historical themes, notably in two major series of paintings: The Course of Empire (1836, New York Historical Society) and The Voyage of Life (1839-40, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica). After his second visit to Italy in 1841-2, he completed a number of religious paintings. He also created a number of architectural designs.

Unfortunately, not long afterwards, he died at Catskill in February 1848 at the comparatively young age of 47.

Style of Painting

Cole's early Hudson River landscapes, largely completed in the 1820s, presented the American rural scene through European conventions of the picturesque and sublime - in a sense, a sort of combination of Claude Lorrain and Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). His later painting becomes larger in scale and infused with literary and ethical narrative. He also injected it with biblical and historical themes, sometimes infecting it with a sense of unnecessary melodrama.

His early style reflected his genuine appreciation for the beauty of the American wilderness, unspoilt by commercial development or tourism, whereas his later, more grandiose interpretation, reflected his fear of the clash between this pure nature and the aggressive American materialism which he was afraid would gobble it up. His allegorical works, The Course of Empire (1836) and The Voyage of Life (1839-40) predicted the rise and fall of American culture.

Paintings by Thomas Cole

Paintings by Cole hang in many of the best art museums in America. Among his key works are:

- Expulsion Moon and Firelight (1828) Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.
- Subsiding of the Waters After the Deluge (1829) Smithsonian Art Museum.
- Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) Art Institute of Chicago.
- The Course of Empire: The Savage State (1836) New York Historical Soc.
- View from Mount Holyoke after Thunderstorm (1836) Metropolitan Museum.
- View on the Catskill - Early Autumn (1837) Metropolitan Museum of Art NY.
- Schroon Mountain, Adirondacks (1838) Cleveland Museum of Art.
- The Notch of the White Mountains (1839) National Gallery, Washington DC.
- The Voyage of Life (1839-40) Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica.
- American Lake Scene (1844) Detroit Institute of Arts.

The Hudson River School

This mid-19th century American art movement consisted of a loosely organized group of romantic landscape artists, who painted spectacular natural scenery, notably views of the Hudson River Valley and the surrounding region, including the Adirondack, Catskill, and the White Mountains.

Inspired by such European masters as Claude Lorrain, John Constable and Turner, Hudson River School paintings are characterized by a realistic, but idealized view of nature and reflect the idea that the beauty of the American landscape was a manifestation of the divine. Most paintings were based on sketches that were later worked up in the artist's studio, and - though they included details of actual places - were often composite scenes taken from multiple real and imaginary locations. In comparison see the exquisite Tonalist landscape painting of George Inness

Members of Hudson River School
Painters who were associated with the Hudson River School of landscape painting, apart from Thomas Cole, included: Asher Brown Durand, as well as later artists such as Frederic Edwin Church, John Frederick Kensett, Albert Bierstadt, Sanford Robinson Gifford, John William Casilear, Samuel Colman, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Thomas Doughty, Robert Duncanson, James McDougal Hart, William Hart, William Stanley Haseltine, Martin Johnson Heade, Hermann Ottomar Herzog, Thomas Hill, David Johnson, Jervis McEntee, Thomas Moran, Robert Walter Weir, and Worthington Whittredge. The work of this later group is sometimes referred to as Luminism, or the Luminist movement, due to their luminous colour palette.

• For more biographies of American landscape artists, see: Famous painters.
• For more information about 19th century art in America, see: Homepage.

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