Artist Thomas Cole: Biography & Paintings

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Learn about artist Thomas Cole and his landscape paintings. Cole is considered the father of the Hudson River School, a movement that captured hopes for a young America through depictions of nature and wilderness.

Thomas Cole: Early Years

Born in England, Thomas Cole (1801-1848) immigrated to America as a child with his parents in 1818. They settled first in Philadelphia before traveling to Ohio and Western Pennsylvania where Cole studied with an itinerant portrait painter. He later returned to Philadelphia to pursue a career as an artist, studying from casts at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

In 1825, Cole traveled to New York City and journeyed up the Hudson River, sketching from nature and documenting the landscape. An agreement with a New York City bookseller to display the resulting paintings in a window attracted attention from prominent New York artists, including John Trumbull and Asher B. Durand. They recognized his potential and opened doors for the young man to find work and clients. Cole became active in the arts community and helped found the National Academy of Design in 1826.

Picturing Nature

Cole traveled throughout the Northeast, studying and sketching dramatic landscapes, such as Niagara Falls, and capturing the wilderness of places like the White Mountains and Adirondacks. In winter, he returned to his studio in Catskill, New York, where he used his sketches and preliminary drawings to compose and then paint large canvases, sometimes as wide as six feet across.

Distant View of Niagara Falls
Distant View of Niagara Falls, oil on canvas by Thomas Cole

Works from this time include Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830). In Cole's vision, the falls are wild and unspoiled. The only human presence is two Native Americans on a promontory. The artist uses nature to convey a sense of awe, but it is an idealized scene. In reality, industry was already beginning to harness and control the falls' flow.

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow
View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow

A later work is View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow (1836). Considered one of Cole's most important paintings, it juxtaposes the untamed power of an approaching thunderstorm with the fertile, cultivated fields below. A river, the Oxbow of the title, winds through the land. The artist included a self-portrait in the middle ground, setting himself in the scene.

The beauty of America's landscape attracted Cole, but his interest ran deeper than surface appearance. The wilderness represented divine potential and expansiveness. He included people in his work, but they were always small, dwarfed by the nature around them. He, and later the artists of the Hudson River School, searched for a higher spiritual sense in the natural world that surrounded them. They wanted a new language to reflect nature's majesty, one that included Christian beliefs.

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