Thomas Cole inspired the generation of American landscape painters that came to be known as the Hudson River School. Born in Bolton-le-Moors, Lancashire, England, in 1801, at the age of seventeen he emigrated with his family to the United States, first working as a wood engraver in Philadelphia before going to Steubenville, Ohio, where his father had established a wallpaper manufacturing business. Dissatisfied in the business, Cole received rudimentary instruction from an itinerant artist, began painting portraits, genre paintings, and a few landscapes, and set out to seek his fortune through Ohio and Pennsylvania. By 1823, he was working for his father again in Pittsburgh, where his family had relocated, but soon moved on to Philadelphia to pursue his art, inspired by paintings he saw at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Moving to New York City in spring 1825, Cole made a trip up the Hudson River to the eastern Catskill Mountains in the vicinity of the recently opened Catskill Mountain House hotel. Based on his sketches there and along the river, he executed three landscapes that a city bookseller agreed to display in his window. Colonel John Trumbull, already renowned as the painter of the American Revolution, saw Cole’s pictures and instantly purchased one, recommending the other two to his colleagues William Dunlap and Asher B. Durand. What Trumbull recognized in the work of the young painter was the perception of wildness inherent in American scenery that landscape artists had theretofore ignored. Trumbull brought Cole to the attention of various patrons, who began eagerly buying his work. Dunlap publicized the discovery of the new talent and Cole was welcomed into New York’s cultural community, which included the poet and editor William Cullen Bryant and the author James Fenimore Cooper. Cole became one of the founding members of the National Academy of Design in 1826.
Even as Cole expanded his travels and subjects to include scenes in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, he aspired to what he termed a “higher style of landscape” that included narrative—some of the paintings in paired series—including biblical and literary subjects, such as Cooper’s popular Last of the Mohicans. By 1829, his success enabled him to take the Grand Tour of Europe and especially Italy, where he remained in 1831–32, visiting Florence, Rome, and Naples. Thereafter he painted many Italian subjects: the Metropolitan’s View near Tivoli (Morning) (1832; 03.27) is an example. The region around Rome, along with classical myth, also inspired the Museum’s fanciful Titan’s Goblet (1833; 04.29.2). Cole’s travels and the encouragement and patronage of the New York merchant Luman Reed culminated in his most ambitious historical landscape series, The Course of Empire (1834–36; New-York Historical Society), five pictures dramatizing the rise and fall of an ancient classical state. Cole also continued to paint, with ever rising technical assurance, sublime American scenes such as the Metropolitan’s View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow (08.228), in which he included a portrait of himself painting the vista, and View on the Catskill—Early Autumn (1837; 95.13.3), in which he pastorally interpreted the prospect of his beloved Catskill Mountains from the village of Catskill, where he had moved the year before and met his wife-to-be, Maria Bartow.
The artist’s marriage brought with it increasing religious piety, manifested in the four-part series The Voyage of Life (1840; Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Museum of Art, Utica, N.Y.). In it, a river journey represents the human passage through life to eternal reward. Cole painted and exhibited a replica of the series in Rome, where he returned in 1841–42, traveling south to Sicily. After his return, he lived and worked chiefly in Catskill, keeping up with art activity in New York primarily through Durand. He continued to produce American and foreign landscape subjects of great beauty and brio, including the Metropolitan’s Mountain Ford (1846; 15.30.63). In 1844, Cole welcomed into his Catskill studio the young Frederic Church, who studied with him until 1846 and went on to become the most renowned exponent of the generation that followed Cole. By 1846, Cole was at work on his largest and most ambitious series, The Cross and the World (unlocated), but in February 1848 contracted pleurisy and died before completing it. At a memorial in New York, Bryant mourned that “much is taken away from the charms of Nature when such a man departs” but consoled himself with the thought that Cole “will be reverenced in future years as a great master in art.” Even before Cole’s death, his earliest acolyte, Durand, who had traveled and sketched with Cole in the late 1830s and become a landscape painter in his own right, had ascended to the presidency of the National Academy of Design. Durand would foster a young generation of landscape artists inspired by Cole’s example to primacy in American art through the Civil War era.