In the mid nineteenth century a group of American landscape painters got together to form a group whose inspiration was the pride they had in the beauty of their homeland. They were influenced by the Romanticism Movement that flourished at that time in Europe and many of this newly formed group had studied there and were familiar with the plein-air Barbizon School painters who had become very popular with both American patrons and collectors. The early leaders of this Hudson River Movement were Thomas Doughty, Asher Durand and the artist which is featured in today’s My Daily Art Display, Thomas Cole. This group of painters concentrated their art work on the Catskill, Adirondack and White Mountains areas and all along the Hudson River valley. These were often untouched areas of great natural beauty. There were three main themes reflected in the Hudson River School artists. They wanted to depict in their works of art, the discovery, exploration and the settlement of this area of America. For most of these artists there was a devout belief that nature in the form of the American Landscape was an indescribable expression of God. These artists would travel extensively through the sometimes inhospitable areas surrounding the Hudson Valley with its extreme environment just to be able to sketch and memorise the wild and rugged beauty of nature and then return to the safer surroundings of home where they would transfer their memories on to canvas. Often their works of art, although painted with realism, would be made up of a combination of the many scenes they had witnessed during their wanderings in the wilderness.
Today’s artist Thomas Cole, although now looked upon as an American artist, was actually born in 1801 in Bolton in Lancashire, England. He is regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School. His family emigrated to America when he was seventeen and settled down in Steubenville, Ohio. Cole started his artistic career, studying portraiture but achieved little success with his finished works. It was then that he turned to landscape painting. In his early twenties he moved around a great deal, living in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia before rejoining his parents in New York. Whilst in New York he made an artistic breakthrough when he sold some of his landscape paintings to George Bruen, a prominent figure in the business and financial circles of New York. So impressed was he by Cole’s work he funded the artist, so that he could travel to the Hudson Valley and carry out some more paintings of that area. On his return Cole displayed some of his art work, which he had completed, in a bookstore window. The artist John Trumbull saw the paintings, bought one and put Cole in contact with some of his wealthy friends who became his most important patrons.
After this Thomas Cole never looked back and his reputation as a landscape artist grew. He had a studio on the Cedar Grove farmstead in the town of Catskill, New York at which he completed most of his works of art. In 1836, aged thirty five, he married Maria Bartow, who was the niece of the farmstead owner and they had five children. Thomas Cole died in 1848, aged forty seven, at Catskill and the fourth highest peak in the Catskill Range mountain range was named Thomas Cole Mountain in his honour and his studio at the Cedar Grove farm became known as the Thomas Cole House and was declared a National Historic Site in 1999 which has been opened up to the public.
My Daily Art Display offering today is Thomas Cole’s oil on canvas painting entitled American Lake Scene which he completed in 1844, four years before his premature death, and which can be seen in the Detroit Institute of Arts. If you look closely you will be able to make out a lone Native American sitting under the tree contemplating the tranquillity of the lake. In this painting the clever use of colour and the natural setting adds to the atmospheric calmness and beauty of the scene. Of this painting one art critic of the time said that the painting “looks like the earth before God breathed on it”
This painting and many of his others was how Thomas Cole would have liked those pioneering days to have been as he was a great opponent of the railroad’s push into the heart of America destroying God’s beautiful landscape. I believe, like Thomas Cole, we should try and appreciate and preserve more of the natural beauty of our countryside and fervently hope that the march to industrialism does not destroy all that we love.