by Roderick Conway Morris

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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
River in the Catskills by Thomas Cole, 1843

Into the Wild

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 22 June 2018


'The painter of American scenery has indeed privileges superior to any other. All nature is here new to art,' wrote the English-born Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School of Painters and father of landscape art in the New World. He is now regarded as one of the leading figures of 19th-century America, but he did not arrive there until he was in his late teens nor become a citizen until his early thirties.

Yet, while he is a household name in his adopted country, he is now little known in his native land. That this has been our loss is highlighted by a splendid exhibition, 'Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire' at the National Gallery, curated by Christopher Riopelle, and containing nearly 60 works by Cole, most of which have never been seen here before in this country, along with canvases by contemporary artists such as Turner and Constable, whom he met and who clearly influenced him. The show is accompanied by an excellent, lavishly illustrated book: 'Thomas Cole's Journey: Atlantic Crossings' by Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser and Tim Barringer.

Cole was born into a well-educated family in Bolton, Lancashire, in 1801. The rapid industrialization of the region was then despoiling large areas of the green and pleasant land that surrounded the town and this, along with violent outbreaks of disorder led by the anti-machine Luddites, made of him a pioneering, life-long, proto-environmentalist and critic of the human cost of 'progress'. When the family fell on hard times, Thomas was obliged to find work as an apprentice engraver, and in 1818 he and the whole family emigrated to America.

In his new home, he discovered 'an Eden' of majestic landscapes and unspoiled wilderness that would stimulate him in due course to create ambitious canvases to record their grandeur.

Although largely self-taught as a painter, he achieved a remarkable level of skill. He made his first trip up the Hudson River in 1825 and three paintings he did of the Catskill Mountains caught the eye of buyers hungry for distinctively American art. One of these was John Trumbull, President of the American Academy of the Fine Arts, whose support was decisive in launching Cole's career. After a study trip to Europe, from 1829 to 1832, Cole enjoyed ever-growing renown as a painter of spectacular canvases of the magnificent scenery of the Hudson River Valley. Cole's finest works also have a visionary quality that gives them an added vibrancy.

Cole turned out to be brilliant teacher, nurturing the talents of other landscape painters, notably Asher Brown Durand and Frederic Edwin Church. Yet before his untimely death at the age of 43, Cole had already become deeply troubled about the ruination, in the name of progress and profit, of the pristine American wilderness that had originally inspired him to become America's first great landscape artist. And his depiction of a steam train crossing a bridge in his 'River in the Catskills' or 1843 was painted in the year before Turner's 'Rain, Steam and Speed'.

Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire; National Gallery, 11 June - 7 October 2018

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023