Thomas Cole (1801–1848) is recognized as one of the greatest American landscape painters. Born in Britain at the height of the Industrial Revolution, he was an economic migrant who arrived on American soil two centuries ago, in 1818. This exhibition is the first to present Cole as an international figure, whose repeated crossings of the Atlantic shaped his world view and artistic practice.
Cole's early depictions of New York's Hudson River Valley—and his embrace of pure wilderness as a novel subject for landscape art—introduced a bold, dramatic style to the United States. Encouraged by his initial success, he decided in 1829 to travel to the artistic capitals of Europe. In England, he studied museum collections and met the leading landscape painters of the age, including J. M. W. Turner and John Constable. In Italy, he enrolled in figure drawing classes and sketched Roman ruins in the Campagna. On view in the following galleries, together for the first time, are works that Cole produced and studied on his formative journey, including paintings by Turner, Constable, Claude Lorrain, and John Martin.
On his return to the United States, Cole executed his most ambitious paintings, The Course of Empire series (1834–36) and The Oxbow (1836). These works respond to his European experiences while also expressing his abiding passion for the American wilderness. Horrified by the effects of industrialization, Cole painted impassioned visual warnings to American citizens about the harsh ecological cost of unchecked development.
Cole's work established landscape painting as, what one critic called, "a national art" of the United States. His legacy is seen in the paintings of the next generation of American artists whom he mentored, notably Frederic Edwin Church and Asher Brown Durand, and continues to inspire artists today.
Cole was born in 1801 in Bolton-le-Moors, near Manchester in northwestern England. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, Bolton was polluted and overcrowded. During his childhood, Cole likely witnessed arson attacks on factories by the Luddites, groups of unemployed workmen whose jobs had been replaced by machinery. The failure of his father's business forced the teenage Cole, highly educated and interested in poetry and music, to take employment in a cotton mill. He worked as an engraver of the blocks from which colorful fabrics, known as calicoes, were printed. In 1817, after moving with his family to Liverpool, he became an apprentice in an engraver's shop, where he may have seen prints after works by leading artists of the era.
Though the nation's recent prosperity derived from industry, few artists attempted to paint the modern city, choosing instead to depict the wild and beautiful countryside. Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg and J. M. W. Turner, however, were impressed by the demonic spectacle of forges and factories at work, discovering a sublime power in the industrial scene. Their works in this gallery provide a glimpse into the tumultuous landscape of Cole's youth.
Unable to make a living in England, James Cole, with his wife, three daughters, and seventeen-year-old son, Thomas, sailed in 1818 from Liverpool to Philadelphia.
Though portraiture and history painting were well established in the United States, landscape—thriving in Britain—was yet to emerge as an important art form. In 1820, recently arrived in Philadelphia from England, the artist Joshua Shaw began to publish Picturesque Views of American Scenery. This series of prints, like William Guy Wall's Hudson River Portfolio, revealed new possibilities for American landscape art.
Determined to become a painter, Cole learned from borrowed textbooks and took lessons from an itinerant artist. In 1825, he moved to New York, and that summer he took a steamboat up the Hudson River, where he made sketches near Catskill, New York. Eliminating all signs of tourism and industry to convey a vision of the landscape before European settlement, these bold early paintings, such as View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains, were an instant success, presenting a daring new vision of the American wilderness. Cole also aspired to create landscapes that engaged with literary and religious themes—"a higher style of landscape," as he wrote. He took subjects from the writings of James Fenimore Cooper and painted large, ambitious biblical landscapes, such as The Garden of Eden.
At the age of twenty-eight, after a little more than a decade in the United States, Cole embarked on a study trip to Europe. Americans of this period regarded London—the political and mercantile hub of the British Empire and a modern city with a million people—as the leading European capital.
The London collections held riches for the young artist. Arriving in June 1829, he visited the newly opened National Gallery and was enraptured by the landscapes of the seventeenth-century French painter Claude Lorrain. At the Royal Academy, he saw John Constable's Hadleigh Castle, with its image of ruins, which haunted Cole for the rest of his life. The two artists soon developed a friendship. Constable was a master of the oil sketch, a medium that Cole adopted on his European tour.
Cole's response to Turner was ambiguous. He greatly admired Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, which he saw in Turner's gallery. When the two met, however, the young American was surprised by the British painter's rough appearance and found his recent progressive work too wildly experimental.
Cole hoped to achieve success with his own work in London. Although he exhibited grand-scale American landscapes at the Royal Academy, his works were largely ignored by critics and the public. Yet the old master and contemporary landscape paintings he studied in London continued to inspire him throughout his career.
Following a brief stay in Paris, Cole arrived in Italy in June 1831. He spent nearly eight months in Florence, finding camaraderie among the small community of American artists in the city. Cole dedicated substantial effort to studying the human figure in Florence and continued to hone his plein-air sketching skills, executing graphite drawings and oil studies in the Tuscan countryside.
From Florence, Cole traveled to Rome, where he resided for four months in 1832. He visited the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Roman Forum, Saint Peter's Basilica, and the Vatican, absorbing the lessons of the classical and Renaissance past. Cole was especially drawn to the Roman Campagna, once the favorite subject of Claude Lorrain. He also sketched sections of an ancient Roman aqueduct and visited Tivoli, where he worked out-of-doors in oil.
Back in his beloved Florentine studio in June 1832, Cole spent the summer painting Italian landscapes for American patrons. It was a period of intense productivity, as he completed several canvases prior to departing for New York in the fall. Italy's landscape, ancient ruins, and storied past had a lasting impact on the artist, and he continued to paint such scenes for American patrons even after returning to the United States.
Cole returned to New York in 1832. After becoming a United States citizen in 1834, he painted many of his greatest works—creative responses to his experiences abroad. The artist's global awareness came to bear in his "Essay on American Scenery" (1836), which presented a manifesto for American landscape art.
Cole worked simultaneously in his Catskill studio on his iconic Course of Empire series and View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow. Embracing the panoramic mode, they engage viewers in visual stories that unfold across multiple works or a wide expanse of canvas. In these paintings, the artist addressed the dangers faced by the young nation under the expansionist policies of President Andrew Jackson, which led to drastic ecological, social, and economic changes. Through his written and visual criticisms, Cole challenged his fellow American citizens to consider the moral value of maintaining the sublime aspects of the landscape.
In his final years, Cole took on a number of students, the most important of whom was Frederic Edwin Church, who trained in Cole's Catskill studio from 1844 to 1846. Church absorbed Cole's reverence for the direct observation of nature and his practice of sketching and painting on-site studies. Cole also mentored his friend and colleague Asher Brown Durand, to whom he taught the art of painting out-of-doors.
The New York art world mourned Cole's untimely death in 1848, at the age of forty-seven, with a memorial ceremony and exhibition, and a series of commemorative paintings. Both Church and Durand painted landscapes that pay homage to their friend and mentor, who established a tradition of landscape art in America, later dubbed the Hudson River School.
Cole's iconic paintings grapple with profound issues of national destiny and environmental preservation. While successive generations of American landscape painters drew crucial lessons from Cole, they moved in new directions after mid-century, fully embracing the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which asserted a God-given justification for nationalist expansion—the very antithesis of Cole's beliefs.
Thomas Cole (American, 1801–1848). View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow (detail), 1836. Oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 76 in. (130.8 x 193 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1908 (08.228). Now at The Met: Thomas Cole (American, 1801–1848). Interior of the Colosseum, Rome (detail), ca. 1832. Oil on canvas, 10 x 18 in. (25.4 x 45.7 cm). Albany Institute of History & Art, Purchase, Evelyn Newman Fund (1964.71). Courtesy of Albany Institute of History & Art