Thomas Cole’s life and work coincide with a pivotal period in American history. Before Cole’s eyes and on his canvas, the newly formed nation would find a vision of its identity born and its future questioned. American history fixates on 1776 and 1865, but in the period between lies a rich and under-explored territory.
Cole was a founder of the Hudson River School art movement, and widely regarded as the first significant American landscape painter. He was known for his romantic landscape and historical paintings, primarily oil on canvas.
His paintings are typically allegoric and often depict small figures or structures set against moody and evocative natural landscapes. They are usually escapist, framing the New World as a natural eden contrasting with the smog-filled cityscapes of Industrial Revolution-era Britain, in which he grew up. His works criticized the contemporary trends of industrialism, urbanism, and westward expansion.
After 1827 Cole maintained a studio at the farm called Cedar Grove, in the town of Catskill, in Greene County, NY, where he painted a significant portion of his work. He died at Catskill on February 11, 1848.
The fourth highest peak in the Catskills is named Thomas Cole Mountain in his honor. Cedar Grove, also known as the Thomas Cole House, was declared a National Historic Site in 1999 and is now open to the public. You can learn more about the site on their website.
Episodes of Reframing an Empire are available to stream online at wmht.org.