Today's Hours
Museum: 10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Today's Hours
Museum: 10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Cole, Thomas
(1801-1848)
Collection: American Collection
Specialty: Paintings
View Artwork
They also shared a common philosophic outlook that sought to render the
sublime in their paintings - the depiction of God through nature; as Ralph
Waldo Emerson phrased it, an art in which every "natural fact is a symbol
of some spiritual fact."

Though Thomas Cole hadn't come to America until the age of 17, like
another famous immigrant, John James Audubon, he had a keen sense of what
it meant to be American. In fact, he exemplified many of the ideals of the
American Adam, the archetype created by James Fenimore Cooper, the first
significant American novelist. Cole was of humble background, he was
largely self-educated, he was comfortable with solitude, he loved (at
least the idea of) the wilderness, and he was utterly confident of his own
abilities. If not quite Natty Bumppo, he was a close but rather more
sophisticated cousin. In addition to his painting, Cole was gifted as a
writer of prose, poetry, and philosophy. In 1835, he wrote and delivered a
paper called "Essay on American Scenery" extolling the spiritual value of
landscape art and altering public consciousness about the genre. He taught
his disciples, "To walk with nature as a poet is the necessary condition
of a perfect artist."

Cole also taught his disciples that, while they should paint from their
observations of nature, their ultimate goal was to render God's presence
in the natural world. Like Emerson, Cole adhered to the Platonic concept
that the world was an expression of spirit and inherently good. This
"goodness" was to be the subject of their paintings - the ideal, rather
than the poor imitation that was usually all we poor mortals could
perceive. Cole stated firmly that he never painted directly from nature,
but from sketches and memory later in his studio:

I must wait for time to draw a veil over the common details, the
unessential parts, which shall leave the great features, whether the
beautiful or sublime, dominant in the mind.


Cole was a close personal friend of transcendentalist poet William Cullen
Bryant who wrote when Cole took his first trip back to Europe to view the
work of European painters: "Yet Cole! Thy heart shall bear to Europe 's
strand/A living image of our own bright land . . ." After his return from
Europe, Cole, Bryant and the painter Samuel Morse, later famous for his
work on the telegraph, founded the National Academy of Design which would
be artist-controlled and dedicated to showcasing new talent. It was in
this venue that most of the Hudson River painters first made their mark.

Unfortunately, Cole died suddenly in 1848 when only 47, just as he should
have been coming into his powers as a mature artist. Nonetheless, it is
thanks primarily to him that an American art emerged at just the right
moment to capture the awe and mystery of the vast American wilderness
before it disappeared altogether. Our debt to him is incalculable.

Everl Adair, Director of Research and Rare Collections