Thomas Cole (1801-1848)

Thomas Cole (1801-1848)

Born in Lancashire, England, Thomas Cole came to the United States with his family in 1818. In 1823 he entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He also began to articulate his growing interest in nature in poetry and prose. After two years’ study Cole moved to New York. He launched his career with landscape views of the Catskills, which were discovered and promoted by three of New York’s most influential artists-critics John Trumbull, William Dunlap and Asher B. Durand.

Contact Vose about this artist
Read more about this artist...

From 1826 until 1836, when he moved there permanently, Cole made summer sketching trips to the Catskills. He also traveled through the White Mountains and the Adirondacks, making pencil and oil sketches which resulted in the production of important landscape paintings. He carried a sketchbook and paint box with him, and probably a portable easel, camp stool and umbrella. Like other travelers of the time he took steamboats, trains, horse-drawn coaches and, when all else failed, he would walk — at times engaging wilderness guides to navigate uncultivated territories, in pursuit of suitably picturesque subjects.

While his reputation as a landscape painter was rising, Cole wanted to establish himself as a painter of higher subjects. In 1828 he exhibited St. John Preaching in the Desert at the Boston Athenaeum, and, in the same year, The Garden of Eden and The Expulsion from the Garden at the National Academy of Design. From 1829 to 1832 he was in London, Paris, and Italy. When he returned to New York, he found an enlightened patron, Luman Reed, who commissioned from him The Course of Empire (1836), an allegorical extravaganza depicting the progress of society.  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 no to paint those so-called realistic views, Cole’s best landscapes reveal the same intelligence that informs his religious and allegorical works.

Cole consistently recorded his thoughts in detailed journals, poetry, and an essay on American scenery published in Atlantic Monthly in 1836. 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.  Although his untimely death at the age of forty-eight shocked everyone, the many achievements that were his legacy provided a firm ground for the continued growth of the school of American landscape.

Scholarship on Cole is extensive. For a good bibliography see Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Paradise; for an excellent chronology see William H. Truettner and Alan Wallach, eds., Thomas Cole, Landscape into History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994).  

Request this artist