Thomas Cole lived and worked in the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York in the 19th century, a far cry from his birthplace in 1801, Bolton le Moors, Lancashire, England. As I sorted through 19th Century American painters to write about here in the blog and eventually in my books (well, snippets about the artists, anyway) I decided to start with Cole for the simple reason that a man Thomas Cole, not the same fellow, is in my ancestry. My grandmother was a Cole, so that pretty much led me to wander down this particular path. Nothing more mysterious than a common name. Thomas Cole, however, was no ordinary man in his time. He was the founder of the Hudson River School of Art, loved American landscape and couldn’t paint enough of it.
Thomas Cole, 19th Century American Artist
His family settled in the United States in 1818 in Steubenville, Ohio. Cole began his professional life as an engraver in Philadelphia. His painting evolved as he was self-taught and still working a day job. His love of portraiture and landscapes is evident in everything he did.
Cole was primarily famous for is rather romantic depictions of the great American landscape. I don’t’ think he ever saw a vista he didn’t want to paint. Many of us share the same sentiment as we look out over the great rural areas of our great nation. We are indeed blessed in the United States and earlier painters never tired of showing us the great magnificence of our nation.
Cole’s early paintings attracted the attention of a Mr. A. Seton. Seton was taken with the artist’s style and sent them on to the American Academy of the Fine Arts. It was a match made in heaven because that showing drew the notice of John Trumbull, Asher B. Durand and William Dunlap. Men with money who vied with others to support up and coming painters. Cole found some patrons willing to buy his art, but more importantly, to tell everyone about him. Word of mouth is always the best publicity!
- A View of Two Lakes
Trumbull had the means and mouthpiece, so to speak, to put Cole and his paintings in front of some very wealthy people such as Robert Gilmor of Baltimore and Daniel Wadswoth of Hartford who took up the patronage of young Cole.
Having friends in high places gave Cole the opportunity to travel around and paint to his heart’s content. In addition to the American landscapes for which he was primarily known in his lifetime, he became a master of painting allegorical paintings of classical themes. Examples of that include works such as The Course of Empire, which showed the same scene over five generations. The Voyage of Life, a four-part series, the Oxbow and the great Daniel Boone in his cabin at Great Osage Lake.
Cole didn’t restrict his work to oil paintings or watercolors. He sketched extensively and The Detroit Institute of Art has a collection of 4,200 of his sketches. Yes, 4,200. Cole was obviously a prolific artist who wasted no time on trivial pursuits. He also found time for a grand European tour to learn as much as possible from the great masters of European art. One of his favorite sites was Mount Etna, the great volcano that he ended up painting when he returned home.
His studio at his farm in Cedar Grove, New York, was filled with his notes and drawings and plans for his abundant work. A recent interesting development added to his reputation. His farmhouse had been redecorated and when the newer changes were removed the walls revealed his drawings everywhere. Nice to have your own work in lieu of wallpaper on the walls of the house!
He continued studying and learning as much as possible throughout his career. Cole experimented with different mediums and was ultimately successful in each one he used. For those of us who have trouble beyond sketching a simple design, it’s hard to fathom how he could put his hand to anything and end up with something that someone else loved enough to buy.
Interestingly, Cole’s sister Sarah was also an artist who was successful as well. Clearly it was a family trait and gave Americans two great landscape painters. Sarah did not display her work during Thomas’ lifetime. He died in 1848 and Sarah began to show her work after that. The Cole siblings apparently worked together early on in their lives at their father’s wallpaper business. Thomas worked himself right out of that business and into the fulltime profession of oil painter.
As Cole’s work drew greater praise and respect, he painted more and more. The tragedy for the art world is that he died a young man, only 47, at a time when his maturity as a painter was at its greatest. He still managed to leave a huge body of work behind him, most of which remains in the United States, in galleries and museums.
A Distant View of Niagara Falls
In addition to his great work as an artist, he was a devoted family man, married, with five children. And his art work was not all he left behind. Believe it or not, he found time to dabble in architecture. The Ohio Statehouse, in Columbus, was built upon the compilation of ideas from the first, second and third place winners. And whose entry did the final product resemble? Why, entrant Thomas Cole, of course. Now I wonder how in the world the man managed to accomplish all this work, endlessly, and of high quality, all the time?
I think I have the answer. He had a wife. He was not the one growing the family veggies, shopping, cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, rearing children, wiping runny noses, picking up the toys and shooing the dog and cats outside. Nope, he was off in his little studio, quiet, alone, tending to his art. This is not a negative rant, dear readers, this is just an observation. And it will be acknowledged by all mothers. Ah, well. We women still manage to get our work done.
Well, Thomas Cole and his little ideas will show up in a book pretty soon. The cast of characters will include people and some dead artists. Follow the crumbs and you will reach the book.
Enjoy your week and go to the National Gallery of Art website to look at 19th century American painters. www.nationalgalleryofart.gov. Have fun!