Analyzing Thomas Cole's Essay On American Scenery

In the most sublime spectacle on earth, the devil and tom walker.

Accordingly, the nature was one of the Romantic themes adored by numerous readers during this era. The author’s description of untamed environment and striking sight inspires and impresses the readers. Soothing and relaxing people through these illustrations, author takes them away from the impersonal society. For example, The Most Sublime Spectacle on Earth by John Wesley Powell vividly displays the spectacular views of Grand Canyon to make readers forget the depraved reality. “The carving of the Grand Canyon is the work of rains and rivers,” Powell stresses that Grand Canyon is the splendid work of nature, not the artificial work of

Changes in the Land Essay

In William Cronon’s book Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, he discuses the ecological history of New England from the late sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century. He demonstrates how the New Englanders changed the land by illustrating the process of the change in the landscape and the environment. In the Preface Cronon states, “My thesis is simple: the shift from Indian to European dominance in New England entailed important changes—well known to historians—in the ways these people organized their lives, but it also involved fundamental reorganizations—less well-known to historians—in the region's plant

Conservation and Preservation at the Turn of the 19th Century

To understand where the motivation and passion to protect the environment was developed, one looks to the rapid deforestation of East Coast old-growth forests at the turn of the century. “As Gifford Pinchot expressed it, ‘The American Colossus was fiercely at work turning natural resources into money.’ ‘A

The Body And The Earth By Wendell Berry

Berry’s mention of the farmer and an understanding of his farm is a constant theme in this essay. Agriculture, a distribution of products born from the earth and its entrance into our bodies as nourishment, describes an interdependence. The development of highways, industry, and daily routine of work and obligation, has caused a romanticization of wilderness. High mountain tops and deep forests are sold as “scenic.” Berry reminds the reader that wilderness had once bred communities and civilization, and that by direct use of the land, we are taught to respect and surrender to it. But by invention of skyscrapers, airplanes, we are able to sit higher than these mountain tops and this is his first representation of disconnect from Creation. Mechanical invention leads one to parallel themselves with godliness, magnifying self worth and a sense of significance. What is misunderstood is that through this magnification, because there is no control or limit, we “raise higher the cloud of megadeath.” Our significance is not proved by the weight of our material wealth, rather

The Legacy Of The Sierra Club Adams

As Adams pursued his work in both art and conservation the various lines of his life were beginning to converge revealing both the unity and the disjunction of his ideas. 137 His impact was felt on both spheres of influence. Using modern techniques of mass communications, Adams brought a vision of idealized wilderness to a broad audience and linked the environmental movement with nationalism and a romantic view of nature. The sustained popularity of his photographs illuminates a continuing public fascination with the wilderness landscape as both a place of beauty and a symbol of national identity and ideals. (Pacific 42) Most leaders within the conservation movement continued to share his ideal assuming that economic growth and wilderness

South Dakota Landscape

Carrie Breitbach’s (2009) “The Geographies of a More Just Food System: Building Landscapes for Social Reproduction” revolves around the idea of bringing justice to the food system by rectifying landscape and social reproduction as a solution in South Dakota. In contrast, Peirce F. Lewis’s “Axioms for Reading the Landscape,” focuses on how to read and understand landscapes through a set of rules which he calls “axioms.” In the “Geographic (or Ecological) Axiom,” Lewis argues that studying a landscape outside its location makes no sense in gaining cultural insight on the landscape (1979, 24). While Don Mitchell (2007, 43) in “New Axioms for the Landscape,” presents the idea that the shape of the land provides direction to its social life. He

Why Was Ansel Adams Important In Protecting The Environment

Indeed other photographers are important for their photographs of land and nature. Notably, Adams is the most prolific contributor and documenter of the land, at least, that is, in America. It is, after all, Ansel Adams’s studio, home and legacy. Although Adams did focus on critically exposing social problems in society and remedy them, he was influential in shaping conservation legislation for open places and spaces in America. While the 1950s was not a time to “go green,” Adams understood then, just as photographers do now words are not enough.

Persuasive Speech : Why We Should Spend More Time Outdoors

The beautiful blossoms that bloom in Californian spring, the summer daisies alongside the cooling lake, long after the summer the trees have lost their leaves entering autumn to fresh white snow out in the mountains. Nature is able to show us its true beauty without any falseness and modifications. After all, is it not ironic how people go to museums to look at paintings of colorful flowers, green hills, and clear water streams; those are beauties that can easily be observed in real life outside of the urban environment which are surrounded by them, or how people buy recordings of the calming sounds of nature, similar to what you would listen to at night in the woods or smell nature aromas of the candles. What we are doing is trying to mislead our minds and pretend to think that we are in the woods but are instead cornered inside our small, well-furnished, and full -with-technology apartment.

Nancy Newhall's This Is The American Earth

In 1963, Porter shared his trip down the Colorado River to capture what would be lost if technological hubris prevailed. The Place No One Knew portrayed fragments of the canyon rather than broad sweeping scenic landscapes. Many criticized the book for too many close-up and abstract images that contrasted light and dark features of the canyon even though it did convey the hidden beauty of the canyon. Although costly, $25, The Place No One Knew was a large format book with color images and elegant craftsmanship of typographer and lithographer. One reviewer commented, “the book needed to be so large and to contain such high-quality prints and exquisite typography. By buying the book, particularly given its expensive price, Americans could gain atonement; through consumption, they could help pay for the sins of the nation” (Dunaway, 2005, p. 181). Critics claimed Porter’s photos demonstrated a duality between portraying the aesthetics of nature with scientific understanding for what is at stake. The Sierra Club continued work to protect the Colorado River along with advocating protection for other natural resources. They published more books communicating the struggles between progress and protection and this style of photography, I argue, lives on in contemporary works (see Ch.

Hudson River School Analysis

He shows nature through scenes of being in danger of being destroyed by mankind by using natural elements to exemplify the aesthetic features of the sublime and incorporating small amounts of hidden detail showing a hunter hunting with a spear to represent the killing and destruction done by mankind. Or taking another approach by showing horses whom are running from their master in a field, indicating man's weakness to control wild animals – an inability to control man’s surroundings and the animals in it. He also shows the other side of mankind and the ability of man to appreciate his surroundings: A man in a rowboat is peacefully enjoying nature's gifts without disturbing them is seen in his painting View on the Catskill, Early Autumn. But although in this painting he shows man at harmony with nature, Cole's aim and intent was to recapture the scenic splendour, Cole used pencil sketches he had made years earlier to create the nostalgic vision of an era before the loggers and railroad builders came and spoiled the picturesque beauty of the Catskill Creek

Arthur H. Carhart: The First US Forest Service

In the history of the U.S. Forest Service, landscape architects have shaped conservation policies, but have often been unsung heroes, writers, visionaries and leaders. For instance, Arthur H. Carhart was the first U.S. Forest Service landscape architect and the first to realize the significance of conservation. From 1919 to 1923, Carhart created the recreational facilities of national forests in six states, from Superior Forest on Wisconsin’s Lake Superior to the San Isabel in southern Colorado. Furthermore, Carhart’s writings during his employment with the U.S. Forest Service are the standing pillars for the wilderness and recreation policies that exist today. Looking further back, in 1892 the father of landscape architecture - Frederick Law

Summary Of Environmental Ethics By The Late 1800s

During the late 1800s to the beginning of the 1900s advocacy for land ownership became a major issues that help shaped the United Stated environmental policy. The essay’s author recognizes transformation in the U.S environmental policy. Bissell writes, Wildlife are one example of the transition of policy formulation and the influence of culture and biological thought in the United States” (Bissell, 1998). Bissell not only explain this environmental shift but Joseph R. Desjardins provides detailed explanation in his book Environmental Ethics, he writes, “By the late nineteenth century, the United States had largely succeeded in these tasks, and most of the American landscape lay open for human use. During this period of tremendous industrial

Meaning To Have A Real Sense Of Place

Lopez urges us to consider the importance of landscape in our own lives. In the book's centerpiece essay, "The American Geographies," he writes that true

Rhetorical Analysis Of Gregory Crewdson's Natural Wonder '

Gregory Crewdson’s untitled photograph from the series “Natural Wonder” presents an eerie close-up of a scene taking place in the woods. The attention of the audience is brought to a small fox who lies on its back, dead. Surrounding the fox are an abundance of overgrown grape vines. Perched atop the fox are three birds who stare questioningly at the site around them. Behind the copious amount of leaves and grapes is a somewhat cheerful looking, white background containing buildings and smoke, a noticeable difference from the forest scene which is more apparent to the audience. Through his placement of objects, use of color, and change of scenery, Crewdson expresses the negative effects of industrialization on wildlife.

century” which “distort[s the] view of the river and green mountains”, by painting a picture of the

Related Topics

  • Romanticism
  • United States
  • Natural environment

Early American Lit and Culture

A middlebury blog, thomas cole.

Why does Cole think it is important to observe and paint American scenery? How does he think nature and humans should interact? How does one painting depict (or fail to depict) the ideals he discusses in his essay?

5 thoughts on “ Thomas Cole ”

' src=

In his essay, Cole expresses his fondness and preference for American scenery, which, in his opinion, “[is] unsurpassed” by other countries where “the primitive features of scenery have long since been destroyed or modified…to accommodate the tastes and necessities of a dense population” (108, 102). This can be clearly see in his painting The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire. In the painting, the once primitive scenery is now “crowned with towers, the rudest valleys [have been] tamed by the plough, [and the] impetuous rivers turned from their courses” (102). Cole acknowledges that America will soon fall victim to the same Fate, “but nature is still predominant” in the country at that time (102). Therefore, he believes that it is imperative for Americans to take advantage of this rural nature, which he see as “an unfailing fountain of intellectual enjoyment, where all may drink, and be awakened to a deeper feeling of the works of genius, and a keener perception of the beauty of our existence” (99). He urges people not to be apathetic in their interactions with nature. He then goes on to remark on the beauty of each element in American scenery (i.e. the water, the Waterfall, the mountains, the sky, the sunset, etc.) For example, his admiration for the Waterfall can be seen in his painting The Falls of Kaaterskill. In the painting, we see “a chain of waterfalls of remarkable beauty, where foaming waters, shadowed by steep cliffs, break over rocks of architectural formation” (105). His belief that the “waterfall may be called the voice of the landscape” is successfully conveyed through the painting (105).

Thomas Cole’s “Essay on American Scenery” suggests that he paints natural scenes to experience a particular emotional response—one he describes variably as “a calm religious tone,” “tranquility and peace,” and a feeling “as though a great void had been filled in our minds” (100, 103, 105). He writes about “the importance of cultivating a taste for scenery,” which practice he seems to define as the appreciation of nature’s physical beauty and the ability of that beauty to give us peace and perspective. The relationship with nature he describes seems disturbingly one-sided: nature, it would appear, exists to provide us with views and artistic material and psychological ease. Cole briefly mentions his “sorrow” that mankind’s “ravages of the axe” have been wrecking “the most noble scenes,” but he acknowledges his own ambivalence, saying, “This is a regret rather than a complaint; such is the road society has to travel” (109). When describing the first European settlers in America, he calls then “an enlightened and increasing people” who “with activity and power wrought changes that seem magical” (102). His appreciation of the wildness or savagery of nature is almost always coupled with a gratefulness for the beautiful or picturesque, for something to “temper” that vision of overwhelming power. He describes his wonder at “[the marriage of] grandeur and loveliness,” betraying his personal belief in the equivalence of beauty and goodness he mentions.

Cole’s painting, “View from Mount Holyoke,” can be read in a similar way: clouds brew over the dark, wild, uncultivated portion of the scene, while the exposed valley seems to have braved the storm and now appears bright, ordered, benign, and attractive. The land by “the Oxbow” appears cultivated, which the sunlight and left-to-right conventions of reading suggest we see as progress. It appears to be “lovely,” “peaceful,” and “charming”—all traits Cole values in his essay (106, 107). The broken spear in the left foreground may indicate some uncertainty—perhaps the same questions Cole posed in his essay about our destruction of the landscape and its wilderness—but it would represent a very subtly raised concern.

Cole seems to resort to nature as a balm—as many who champion the natural world do—but I have difficulty viewing his approach as other than somewhat superficial and irresponsible. He describes natural beauty as functioning like a mask, able to “cast a veil of tender beauty over the asperities of life” (101). Though the beauty of nature may have substantial, perceptible influence over his own psyche, he seems to turn to it for a band-aid-type distraction rather than a constructive solution. He does not seem to feel any obligation to protect or maintain the beauty of the landscape he exploits, which further characterizes his appreciation as a shallow one. In fact, his writings and works suggest that he may prefer the human-inhabited (but not -dominated), “tempered” world to its unknowable and intimidating, truly natural state.

It is obvious from the start that Cole is very passionate about the scenery he sees throughout the United States. He is enthralled with the landscape and describes it in terms of sublimity and magnificence. He seems to think that everyone should express the same love of nature and rural earth as he does. He talks about important events that happened with rural earth as the background: Elijahs witnessing of the mighty wind, earthquake, and fire on Mount Horeb, St. Johns preaching in the desert. Cole asserts that even in the city this beauty cannot be hidden. American scenery is what really appeals to Cole, and he compares it with European scenery to further his notion of how magnificent and beautiful the landscape is. He shuns those who favor the scenery of a different country over their own, and hopes that they “will know better how to appreciate the treasures of their own country” (101). He insists that although European scenery and American scenery differ, one must not think the latter inferior. Cole talks extensively about the sublime and rugged landscape that has barely been touched by humans. It is most distinctive, he says, because there is nothing like it in Europe, where it has all been modified. In every component of scenery he discusses, whether it be water, mountains, or waterfalls, he compares it to the European counterpart and makes a compelling argument in favor of the American landscape. He also makes a point of not only painting a beautiful image of only one specific place, but touching on the brilliance of all regions of the country. Cole encourages people to take in this scenery, and to let it generate emotion and reflection. Cole sets up a framework for a new appreciation of the sublime, untouched American landscape. In “The Falls of Kaaterskill,” Cole exhibits this feeling of fear alongside awe. The scene looks wild and untouched, but at the same time something that is worth appreciating, something that can only be found here.

Cole’s essay demonstrates his fondness in American scenery. Cole was born in England but emigrated to the United States in his late teens. His passion for American scenery is evident in his writing as he compares it to European scenery. He believes that every American should find great interest in American scenery, calling it “his own land” and stating that those who do not find interest in it should “shut themselves up in their narrow shell of prejudice.” He also believes that the human mind connects beauty with goodness and therefore sees beautiful things as inherently good. Cole acknowledges that American scenery is different than scenery in the old world but does not believe that it should be viewed as inferior. Cole distinguishes its wildness as the most impressive characteristic of American scenery, a trait that the scenery of Europe no longer possesses. His vision of American scenery as raw and untamed is contrasted with his vision of a refined, tamed European scenery. Cole focuses on predominantly on the northeast United States, highlighting the mountains, lakes and waterfalls as the most sublime elements in nature. Their purity and primitiveness separate them from similar features in Europe. Cole also references Autumn in the northern states as the most gorgeous season in all the world. His critique of American and European scenery concludes with his belief that Europe’s scenery is associated with its past while American scenery is associated with its present and future. Cole is nervous for the future of American scenery, fearing that it may be “cultivated” and “ravaged” in the years to come as the population in the United States grows. Although this displeases Cole, he understands that “such is the road society has to travel.” Cole’s reasoning for painting and observing American scenery and taking in its beauty is because it will inevitably evolve over time into a more cultivated land. He encourages people to take the time to enjoy the purity of rural nature, insisting that it will promote clearer thinking and a more peaceful mind. He wants people to value American scenery for its unique beauty that differs from old world scenery and to refrain from comparing it to that old world. Cole’s painting, Home in the Woods, depicts the beginning of settlement and cultivation of this new land. While the forest and mountains in the background still hold their raw and untamed character, the foreground shows the start of civilization building on the river bank. It is clear that “the ravages of the axe are daily increasing” as we see a house built of trees and a other wooden structures surrounding the house, including a canoe in the river. The immediate foreground shows what appears to be the remains of the part of the forest that the people used to build their house. The excess stumps and logs are a much less picturesque view than the vast forest in the background. This painting reflects the beginning of a growing population in the northeastern United States that would exploit nature for its resources, and in doing so, take away its pure beauty.

After reading Thomas Cole’s “Essay on American Scenery”, the first thing that evidently jumps out to the reader is his unconditional love and passion for the scenery that is present throughout the United States. In essence, the role that nature plays in his life is unparalleled and he believes that every American should be interested in and treat the scenery of America with the utmost of respect. Regardless of where you live in this country, the scenery that surrounds you is indeed beautiful and magnificent. Basically what he is saying that that no matter where you are, nature is truly amazing. In his eyes, there is nothing more special that gazing at what the Almighty has created, the landscape of our country. After I read this essay, I could’t help but think about how bold Cole is in his very firm belief of the importance of scenery. When speaking of people who do not view American Scenery as a glorious and incredible sign, he says “Let such persons shut themselves up in their narrow shell of prejudice” (101). While I myself am not a nature connoisseur, after reading this line there is not doubt that I thought Cole was indeed an “American Scenery Snob”. However, Cole that speaks about how there are many elements of nature that make the scenery of America so amazing. When talking about water, he says that on one hand an unrippled lake can represent tranquility and peace, while on the other a rapid stream can symbolize turbulence and impetuosity (103). This is just one of the elements of nature that makes is so stunning. When looking at his paintings “The Course of the Empire: The pastoral or Arcadian State”, much of what he says in his essay comes to life. He says that “We are still in Eden” (109), which I believe is his notion that the most beautiful things in life are already given to us by God. In this painting, there are so many elements of beauty that it is hard to refute that quote. The mountains, the trees, the lake, and the sky all play a fundamental role in this beauty that is given to us for free. In a world where everybody wants things for themselves, Cole makes the claim that American Scenery is the only thing we really need.

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  • Sam Fox School
  • Kemper Art Museum
  • Island Press

Washington University in St. Louis

Spotlight Essay: Thomas Cole

thomas cole essay on american scenery summary

Spotlight Essay: Thomas Cole , Aqueduct near Rome , 1832 February 2016

William L. Coleman Postdoctoral fellow in American Art, Department of Art History & Archaeology, Washington University in St. Louis

When the Anglo-American landscape painter Thomas Cole made his first visit to Italy in the summer of 1831, he embarked on intensive study not only of paintings and sculptures, as so many visiting artists had before him, but also of ancient and modern Italian architecture. In so doing he launched a new phase of his career in which he entered into dialogue with a transatlantic lineage of “painter-architects” that includes Michelangelo, Raphael, and Rubens—artists whose ambitions were not confined to canvas and who were involved extensively with the design and construction of villas and churches, among other projects. Cole was similarly engaged with building projects in the latter decades of his short career, but a substantial body of surviving writings, drawings, and, indeed, buildings testifying to this fact has been largely overlooked by scholars, presumably because it does not fit neatly with the myth of Cole as “the father of the Hudson River School” of American landscape painting. 1 For an artist whose chief contribution, we have been told, is the argument his work offers for landscape painting as an art of the intellect rather than of mere mechanical transcription of outward appearances, his abiding commitment to the science of building and his professional aspirations in that direction are hard to explain. The gulf that divides his allegorical views of the northeastern United States from his prize-winning proposal for the new Ohio Statehouse, for example, might seem too great to be bridged. However Aqueduct near Rome (1832) shows the symbiotic relationship between Cole’s architectural vision and his better-known work in oil on canvas. In fact this iconic painting marks a moment of transition, when the artist made a distinct turn to the built environment for his subject matter and came to conceive of himself as a public artist-intellectual for whom it was a duty to speak on matters of taste, as much in architecture as in painting. Aqueduct near Rome testifies to the coexistence of seemingly contradictory impulses in Cole’s work: celebration of the allegorical possibilities of a ruin in the landscape, and reflection on technological and stylistic features of a work of architecture.

Cole visited Italy on two occasions: from June 1831 to August 1832 and again from November 1841 through May 1842. 2 On these trips he made many paintings with architectural subjects, of which The Temple of Segesta with the Artist Sketching (c. 1842), now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is an especially intriguing example for the self-portrait it includes of Cole in the process of diligent study of the built environment. The Italian months were among the most productive of Cole’s career and resulted in dozens of finished canvases. In an account of the first trip he sent to William Dunlap for publication in the latter’s 1834 History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States , Cole wrote, “what I believe contributes to the enjoyment of being [in Italy] is the delightful freedom from the common cares and business of life—the vortex of politics and utilitarianism, that is forever whirling at home,” and he lamented, “O that I was there again, and in the same spirit!” 3 This passion for Italy in general, and Rome in particular, was unusual in the period, when most American landscape painters in Europe had their strongest ties to the London art world, as is true of Frederic Edwin Church and Jasper Francis Cropsey, for example. 4 Cole’s Italophilia is particularly surprising in the context of rising anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment in the same years that caused many American tourists to identify with the religious and political structures of northern Europe in contrast to those of the south. 5 Cole’s own comments about Italy and the paintings he produced there demonstrate that he found ways to reconcile the ideologies bound up with Italy in his lifetime with his own politics and religious faith.

Aqueduct near Rome is among the largest and most accomplished of the paintings Cole produced during his first Italian period. A commission from Charles Lyman of Waltham, Massachusetts, who was in Rome conducting the traditional gentleman’s grand tour of Europe and its antiquities, this imposing canvas depicts, with some embellishment, one of the more spectacular ancient sites a grand tourist might have been expected to visit and study in the pursuit of cosmopolitanism and refinement: the Claudian Aqueduct. 6 This was one of Ancient Rome’s major sources of fresh water, completed in the first century CE and extending nearly fifty miles east of the city with arches one hundred feet high in places. Because portions of the aqueduct could be found then, as now, still standing within the borders of Rome itself, this subject was readily accessible from the rooms Cole rented on the Pincian Hill, reputedly the same apartment that the seventeenth-century French landscape painter Claude Lorrain had used in his day. While Cole also painted tried-and-true subjects like the Colosseum, an aqueduct bore particular promise for a landscape painter as a ruin that by its very definition extended out from the city into the surrounding landscape. Cole selected a view that prioritizes the Tor Fiscale, a private watchtower that was built into the aqueduct by the Annibaldi family in the thirteenth century. 7 This structure acts as a repoussoir , guiding the viewer’s eye into the picture and to the succession of arches that stretches onward, seemingly to infinity. Moreover, Cole’s composition emphasizes the anomalous stone arch built into the stout masonry wall of this tower, literally foregrounding the arch as an engineering technology and clarifying the basic building unit of the aqueduct in the process. For Cole, the Claudian Aqueduct seems to have been a compelling subject as an accessible and well-preserved example of the achievements of classical architecture and engineering. The ruined state of the structure and the greenery creeping up its towers do not belie his interest in it as a feat of building. This is evident from the disciplined architectural draftsmanship that went into constructing the canvas, as can be seen in the numerous preparatory sketches he made (now in the Detroit Institute of Arts), while the fallen Ionic capital in the left foreground urges reflection not only on the aesthetic possibilities that were available to a builder of first-century Rome but also to the contemporary “dilemma of style” in nineteenth-century New York that sought new orders and ways of building in the service of a distinctly American architecture. 8 Greenery creeps over fallen columns and capitals as nature begins to reclaim this feat of man, while a solitary foreground goat and a distant shepherd and his flock put the greenery to use. A skull also in the left foreground reinforces the message of the fragility of human deeds in the face of centuries and millennia, urging a viewer to reflect on the passage of time and on one’s own mortality. In this fusion of real and ideal, of studied observation with allegorical possibility, Cole foreshadows structures he would include in his plan for the Ohio Statehouse and the visionary city of his Course of Empire paintings just four years later. The sheer size of the canvas, one of the largest Cole had attempted to this date, also anticipates that famous series, which, significantly, envisions the rise and fall of an imagined classical civilization by means of architecture. In this monumental painting of a monumental subject, Cole begins to explore architecture’s ability to tell stories and convey moral messages while also studying matters of style and form that allow a building to remain the subject of admiration millennia after its completion.

When Cole suggested to Charles Lyman that this subject was worthy of painting, the market for images of ruins in European art was well established, intrinsically linked with the grand tour. While it was commercially savvy for Cole to convey in paint the poetic and practical lessons a wealthy tourist might take from visiting the Claudian Aqueduct with a learned guide, this was a rather unusual move for the artist in a career distinguished by his advocacy for less well-trodden subject matter. In his influential “Essay on American Scenery,” the artist admitted that the seemingly new and uncivilized American landscape might be perceived as “destitute of those vestiges of antiquity, whose associations so strongly affect the mind” in Europe. 9 (Needless to say, humans had lived and built and fought and died on the lands he depicted in America for millennia, but the story of native peoples is elided in his remarks.) However, he argued that the American landscape is morally superior precisely because it has “no ruined tower to tell of outrage” past under a feudal system and that the American landscape also had rich historical associations thanks to the consecration of new scenes by the Revolutionary War. While Cole’s American paintings work to cultivate a taste for an altogether wilder landscape, often devoid of the traces of European civilization, he was versatile enough to make strategic use of the tropes of European painting in this canvas. His success in this effort is evident from the verdict of the prominent man of letters Nathaniel Parker Willis, who called Aqueduct near Rome “one of the finest landscapes ever painted.” 10 For Willis it seems this canvas was a sign of the achievements of American art in taking on the Europeans at their own game and a welcome example of the fusion of topographical fact with allegorical import that Cole himself called “a higher style of landscape.” 11 That Cole judged his market well and succeeded in the effort is also clear from the fact that Cole received a commission to repeat the composition a decade later; a second view (now in the Wadsworth Atheneum), nearly identical except for its slightly smaller format, was completed during a return visit in 1843. 12

When he made this picture, the thirty-year-old artist had attained a national reputation and a degree of financial security and aspired to play a larger role in the cultural life of the United States. In addition to his work in painting and print, he began publishing essays, short stories, and poetry in a variety of periodicals and corresponding with professors and gentleman amateurs around the country about subjects ranging from fossil collecting to the original polychrome decoration of the Parthenon. However, architecture was his most sustained outside interest for the final two decades of his short life. He wrote an intriguing unpublished “Letter to the Publick on the Subject of Architecture,” made designs for the Washington Monument and a variety of country houses, designed a new church that was built for his parish in Catskill, New York, and won third prize in the competition to design the Ohio Statehouse, with his exterior design playing a major role in the structure that stands in Columbus today. 13 Cole went so far as to list himself as an architect in various New York City directories in the 1830s, and he seriously considered launching a joint architectural practice with his nephew. 14 Certain themes emerge from these traces of his architectural thought, prominent among them a suspicion of English styles, a fondness for Italian models (both ancient and modern), and a concern with permanence and the judgments of the future. When Cole approached the subject of the Claudian Aqueduct, he did so as an autodidact of the science of building, with a growing knowledge of the feats of engineering and design that made the structure possible, and with an admiration of the work that had gone into making this structure stand the test of time, even if in a ruined state. The imposing form that remained standing in Cole’s day, and in ours, encourages reflection on its original grandeur and suggests the possibility that modern buildings, too, could continue to stand, and to mean, for centuries if built judiciously and tastefully. These are the same principles he addressed in his writings on architecture and sought to apply to his own building projects in subsequent years. Aqueduct near Rome shows a Euro-American artist speaking a pan-European vernacular and participating in a transatlantic tradition of painter-architects, for whom a well-formed building could be a means of transmitting artistic principles to a far wider public than painting alone could reach.

[1] See for example Elliot S. Vesell, “Introduction,” in Louis Legrand Noble, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole , ed. Elliot S. Vesell (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1964), xv.

[2] Ellwood C. Parry III, The Art of Thomas Cole: Ambition and Imagination (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1988), 375–78.

[3] Thomas Cole, as quoted in William Dunlap, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States , ed. Frank W. Bayley and Charles E. Goodspeed, vol. 3 (Boston: C. E. Goodspeed, 1918), 154–55. First published 1834 by George P. Scott and Co.

[4] While Cole perceived a chilly reception from London artists, Church and Cropsey were more enthusiastically welcomed. On the English reception of Church’s Heart of the Andes (1859), see Jennifer Raab, Frederic Church: The Art and Science of Detail (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 59. On the English reception of Cropsey’s The Backwoods of America (1858), see Bernard Bonario, “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow: Jasper F. Cropsey’s The Backwoods of America ,” RACAR: Revue d’art canadienne / Canadian Art Review 9, no. 1/2 (1982), 9–20.

[5] See Daniel Kilbride, Being American in Europe, 1750–1860 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

[6] On the grand tour in general, see Edward Chaney, The Evolution of the Grand Tour: Anglo-Italian Cultural Relations since the Renaissance (London: Frank Cass, 1998). The Aqua Claudia was included among popular sites for travelers in eighteenth-century guidebooks. See for example Thomas Nugent, The Grand Tour , vol. 3 (London: S. Birt, 1749), 256.

[7] On the Annibaldi, see Sandro Carocci, La nobiltà romana nel medioevo (Rome: École française de Rome, 2006).

[8] See J. Mordaunt Crook, The Dilemma of Style: Architectural Ideas from the Picturesque to the Post-Modern (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

[9] Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery,” The American Monthly Magazine 1 (January 1836), 1–12.

[10] Nathaniel Parker Willis, Pencillings by the Way , vol. 1 (London: John Macrone, 1835), 178.

[11] Letter from Thomas Cole to Robert Gilmor, May 21, 1828, as quoted in Noble, Life and Works , 64.

[12] This work was one half of a commissioned pendant pair. The other painting is Evening in Arcadia (1843), also now in the Wadsworth Atheneum.

[13] The manuscript of this essay can be found in the Thomas Cole Papers in the New York State Library, box 1, folder 4. This document is transcribed in full as Appendix C of my doctoral dissertation, “Something of an Architect: Thomas Cole and the Country House Ideal” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2015), 220–22. On Cole’s church project, see Parry, Ambition and Imagination , 242–43; and Abbott Lowell Cummings, “The Ohio State Capitol Competition,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 12, no. 2 (May 1953): 15–18.

[14] See for example Longworth’s American Almanack, New-York Register, and City Directory (New York: David Longworth, 1834–35), 201. The proposed architectural venture with his nephew William Henry Bayless is mentioned in a letter of October 20, 1839, from Cole to William Apthorp Adams in the Thomas Cole Papers, New York State Library, box 1, folder 4.

<< Return to Spotlight Series homepage

Image Credit

Thomas Cole, Aqueduct near Rome , 1832. Oil on canvas, 44 1/2 x 67 5/16". University purchase, Bixby Fund, by exchange, 1987. WU 1987.4.

Kemper primary links

  • Current and online exhibitions
  • Upcoming exhibitions
  • Past exhibitions
  • Lectures and talks
  • Public tours
  • Member programs
  • University programs
  • Performances
  • Special events
  • About the collection
  • Explore the collection
  • Art on Campus program
  • Spotlight essay series
  • Virtual tours

Kemper footer links

  • Accessibility
  • Facility rental
  • Subscribe to eNews

Smarthistory Logo

Wilderness, settlement, American identity

Cole feared for the American landscape as his country expanded westward

Test your knowledge with a quiz

Cole, hunter's return.

  • White Americans used the concept of Manifest Destiny to justify the westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century. Increased white settlement and industry transformed the landscape of the American frontier.
  • Cole sought to represent the sublime grandeur of the American landscape. The painting represents his conflicted feelings over the inevitable loss of wilderness that accompanied economic development.
  • Cole was one of the first environmentalists. He shared the notion, popular in the early 19th century, that God’s divine presence was embodied in nature, and saw the American wilderness as central to the nation’s identity.
  • Cole is credited as the founder of the Hudson River School , which is often described as the first style of painting to be considered American.

“The seemingly untouched quality of the nation’s wilderness distinguished the United States from Europe. The landscape came increasingly to embody what Americans most valued in themselves: an “unstoried” past, and “Adamic” freedom, an openness to the future, a fresh lease on life. In time, Americans came to think of themselves as “nature’s nation.” And yet one of the paradoxes of American history…lay in the unresolved tension between the subduing of the wilderness and the honoring of it. The tension is still alive with us today, in the competing voices of environmentalists and advocates of development.”

— Angela L. Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J. Wolf, and Jennifer L. Roberts,  American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity  (Washington University Libraries, 2018), p. 24 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

An unresolved tension

For much of the nineteenth century, America’s landscape was intimately connected with the nation’s identity (unlike Europe, nature in North America was seen as untouched by the hand of man). But the United States has also always prided itself on its entrepreneurial spirit, its economic progress, and its industry. This tension between the nation’s natural beauty and the inevitable expansion of industry was clearly felt in the mid-nineteenth century as logging, mining, railroads, and factories were quickly diminishing what once seemed an endless wilderness. Thomas Cole (1801-48) beautifully expressed the tension between these two American ideals in many of his landscape paintings.

Thomas Jefferson had envisioned that American democracy would be sustained by a nation of yeoman farmers who worked small farms with their families—such as the household pictured by Cole. By the end of 19th century, however, manufacturing had became a primary driver of the American economy.

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 linked midwestern farms with cities on the east coast. Tanneries (where animal hides were processed to make leather using tannin, which was derived from hemlock trees) proliferated and lumber merchants deforested the landscape. As many as 70 million eastern hemlock trees were cut down to provide tannin. Beginning in the 1830s, the railroad had begun to cut across the American landscape, allowing for easier transportation of goods and passengers.

As the east coast grew increasingly populous and developed, more people moved westward in search of economic opportunity. The Homestead Acts were a series of laws enacted in 1862 to provide 160-acre lots of land at low cost, to encourage settlers to move west, answering Manifest Destiny’s [popup] call for westward expansion (the term was coined in 1845, the year this painting was made). Importantly, the popular conception of the west as unspoiled territory ignored the many nations of American Indians who had already settled the North American continent.

Cole’s painting

Though Cole’s The Hunter’s Return  features human figures, it was seen as a landscape painting, since nature is dominant. In the art academies of Europe landscapes were not accorded the same respect as history paintings (whose subjects came from history, the bible or mythology, and therefore had clear moral elements and treated noble subjects), but Cole was intent on elevating his landscapes by imbuing them with a more serious message.

At first glance, a viewer might assume that this painting is set in the Catskill Mountains in the Hudson River Valley in New York State where Cole lived and painted, but in fact this painting is a composite of many scenes, and promotes a specific point of view—one that is ambivalent about the ways that Americans were rapidly transforming the natural beauty that was so fundamental to the nation’s understanding of itself. The foreground of the painting juxtaposes the tree stumps left by man’s axe against the more pristine wilderness seen in the middle and background of the painting.

Cole’s image then is not real, but nostalgic. The artist gave voice to the longing for a pristine, pre-industrial America. Cole wrote,

“I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away. The ravages of the axe are daily increasing. The most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation. This is a regret rather than a complaint. Such is the road society has to travel.” — Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery,” The American Monthly Magazine , vol. 7, January 1836, p. 12 .

Learn more about this painting from the Amon Carter Museum

Who was Thomas Cole?

Read Thomas Cole’s “An Essay on American Scenery”

Learn about Cole and the other painters in the Hudson River School

Learn about the impact of tanneries on the landscape of the Catskill mountains

How did the Erie canal impact the development of the midwest?

More to think about

Compare Cole’s The Hunter’s Return with John Gast’s American Progress.  Discuss how these works suggest different perspectives on westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”ColeAmon,”]

More Smarthistory images…

thomas cole essay on american scenery summary

Find this video in...

Seeing america.

  • Theme: National Identity
  • Period: 1800 - 1848
  • Topic: The frontier, Manifest Destiny, and the American West

Art histories

  • Thomas Cole, The Hunter's Return

Teaching guides

  • Teaching guide for The Hunter's Return
  • All teaching guides

thomas cole essay on american scenery summary

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.

Browse Smarthistory images for teaching & learning!

Sign up for our newsletter!

Receive occasional emails about new Smarthistory content.

Visiting Manet/Degas ?

You must join the virtual queue. Read the additional visitor guidelines.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Thomas cole (1801–1848).

The Titan's Goblet

The Titan's Goblet

Thomas Cole


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

A View near Tivoli (Morning)

A View near Tivoli (Morning)

View on the Catskill—Early Autumn

View on the Catskill—Early Autumn

Landscape with Tower (from McGuire Scrapbook)

Landscape with Tower (from McGuire Scrapbook)

The Fountain, No. 1: The Wounded Indian Slaking His Death Thirst

The Fountain, No. 1: The Wounded Indian Slaking His Death Thirst

The Mountain Ford

The Mountain Ford

Kevin J. Avery The American Wing, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

August 2009

Thomas Cole inspired the generation of American landscape painters that came to be known as the Hudson River School . Born in Bolton-le-Moors, Lancashire, England, in 1801, at the age of seventeen he emigrated with his family to the United States, first working as a wood engraver in Philadelphia before going to Steubenville, Ohio, where his father had established a wallpaper manufacturing business. Dissatisfied in the business, Cole received rudimentary instruction from an itinerant artist, began painting portraits, genre scenes, and a few landscapes, and set out to seek his fortune through Ohio and Pennsylvania. By 1823, he was working for his father again in Pittsburgh, where his family had relocated, but soon moved on to Philadelphia to pursue his art, inspired by paintings he saw at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Moving to New York City in spring 1825, Cole made a trip up the Hudson River to the eastern Catskill Mountains in the vicinity of the recently opened Catskill Mountain House hotel. Based on his sketches there and along the river, he executed three landscapes that a city bookseller agreed to display in his window. Colonel John Trumbull, already renowned as the painter of the American Revolution, saw Cole’s pictures and instantly purchased one, recommending the other two to his colleagues William Dunlap and Asher B. Durand . What Trumbull recognized in the work of the young painter was the perception of wildness inherent in American scenery that landscape artists had theretofore ignored. Trumbull brought Cole to the attention of various patrons, who began eagerly buying his work. Dunlap publicized the discovery of the new talent and Cole was welcomed into New York’s cultural community, which included the poet and editor William Cullen Bryant and the author James Fenimore Cooper. Cole became one of the founding members of the National Academy of Design in 1825.

Even as Cole expanded his travels and subjects to include scenes in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, he aspired to what he termed a “higher style of landscape” that included narrative—some of the paintings in paired series—including biblical and literary subjects, such as Cooper’s popular Last of the Mohicans . By 1829, his success enabled him to take the Grand Tour of Europe and especially Italy, where he remained in 1831–32, visiting Florence, Rome , and Naples . Thereafter he painted many Italian subjects: the Metropolitan’s View near Tivoli (Morning) (1832; 03.27 ) is an example. The region around Rome, along with classical myth , also inspired the Museum’s fanciful Titan’s Goblet (1833; 04.29.2 ). Cole’s travels and the encouragement and patronage of the New York merchant Luman Reed culminated in his most ambitious historical landscape series, The Course of Empire (1833–36; New-York Historical Society), five pictures dramatizing the rise and fall of an ancient classical state. Cole also continued to paint, with ever rising technical assurance, sublime American scenes such as the Metropolitan’s View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow ( 08.228 ), in which he included a portrait of himself painting the vista, and View on the Catskill—Early Autumn (1836-37; 95.13.3 ), in which he pastorally interpreted the prospect of his beloved Catskill Mountains from the village of Catskill, where he had moved the year before and met his wife-to-be, Maria Bartow.

The artist’s marriage brought with it increasing religious piety, manifested in the four-part series The Voyage of Life (1840; Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Museum of Art, Utica, N.Y.). In it, a river journey represents the human passage through life to eternal reward. Cole painted and exhibited a replica of the series in Rome, where he returned in 1841–42, traveling south to Sicily. After his return, he lived and worked chiefly in Catskill, keeping up with art activity in New York primarily through Durand. He continued to produce American and foreign landscape subjects of great beauty and brio, including the Metropolitan’s Mountain Ford (1846; 15.30.63 ). In 1844, Cole welcomed into his Catskill studio the young Frederic Church , who studied with him until 1846 and went on to become the most renowned exponent of the generation that followed Cole. By 1846, Cole was at work on his largest and most ambitious series, The Cross and the World (unlocated), but in February 1848 contracted pleurisy and died before completing it. At a memorial in New York, Bryant mourned that “much is taken away from the charms of Nature when such a man departs” but consoled himself with the thought that Cole “will be reverenced in future years as a great master in art.” Even before Cole’s death, his earliest acolyte, Durand, who had traveled and sketched with Cole in the late 1830s and become a landscape painter in his own right, had ascended to the presidency of the National Academy of Design. Durand would foster a young generation of landscape artists inspired by Cole’s example to primacy in American art through the Civil War era .

Avery, Kevin J. “Thomas Cole (1801–1848).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (August 2009)

Further Reading

Noble, Rev. Louis Legrand. The Life and Works of Thomas Cole . 1853; reprint. Hensonville, N.Y.: Black Dome Press, 1997.

Parry, Ellwood C. III. "Thomas Cole's Early Career: 1818–1829." Edward J. Nygren, Views and Visions: American Landscape before 1830 . Exhibition catalogue. Washington, D.C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1986.

Parry, Ellwood C. III. Thomas Cole: Ambition and Imagination . Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.

Truettner, William H., and Alan Wallach. Thomas Cole: Landscape into History . Exhibition catalogue. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Additional Essays by Kevin J. Avery

  • Avery, Kevin J.. “ Late Eighteenth-Century American Drawings .” (October 2003)
  • Avery, Kevin J.. “ Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900) .” (August 2009)
  • Avery, Kevin J.. “ Nineteenth-Century American Drawings .” (October 2004)
  • Avery, Kevin J.. “ Asher Brown Durand (1796–1886) .” (October 2009)
  • Avery, Kevin J.. “ John Frederick Kensett (1816–1872) .” (December 2009)
  • Avery, Kevin J.. “ Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823–1880) .” (August 2009)
  • Avery, Kevin J.. “ The Hudson River School .” (October 2004)

Related Essays

  • America Comes of Age: 1876–1900
  • Asher Brown Durand (1796–1886)
  • Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900)
  • The Hudson River School
  • Photography and the Civil War, 1861–65
  • Alexander Jackson Davis (1803–1892)
  • American Neoclassical Sculptors Abroad
  • American Revival Styles, 1840–76
  • Frederic Remington (1861–1909)
  • George Inness (1825–1894)
  • Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828)
  • The Grand Tour
  • John Frederick Kensett (1816–1872)
  • Post-Revolutionary America: 1800–1840
  • The Rediscovery of Classical Antiquity
  • Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823–1880)
  • Students of Benjamin West (1738–1820)
  • The Transformation of Landscape Painting in France
  • Winslow Homer (1836–1910)

List of Rulers

  • Presidents of the United States of America
  • Southern Europe, 1800–1900 A.D.
  • The United States and Canada, 1800–1900 A.D.
  • The United States and Canada, 1900 A.D.–present
  • 19th Century A.D.
  • American Art
  • American Decorative Arts
  • American Literature / Poetry
  • Ancient Greek Art
  • Ancient Roman Art
  • Arboreal Landscape
  • Architectural Element
  • Architecture
  • Classical Ruins
  • Greek and Roman Mythology
  • Hudson River School
  • Norse Mythology
  • North America
  • Oil on Canvas
  • Pastoral Scene
  • Philadelphia
  • United States
  • Wall Painting

Artist or Maker

  • Church, Frederic Edwin
  • Cole, Thomas
  • Durand, Asher Brown

Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole Photo

British-American Painter

Thomas Cole

Summary of Thomas Cole

The paintings of Thomas Cole, like the writings of his contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson , stand as monuments to the dreams and anxieties of the fledgling American nation during the mid-19th century; and they are also euphoric celebrations of its natural landscapes. Born in the industrial north-west of England, Cole moved to the United States as a young man, and from that point onwards sought to capture in paint the sublime beauty of the American wilderness. He is considered the first artist to bring the eye of a European Romantic landscape painter to those environments, but also a figure whose idealism and religious sensibilities expressed a uniquely American spirit. Indeed, despite his upbringing in Britain - or perhaps because that upbringing gave him a fresh perspective - his work continues to resonate as an exemplar of that spirit in the modern day.


  • No one before Thomas Cole had applied the motifs and techniques of European Romantic landscape painting to the scenery of North America. In his works, we find the dramatic splendor of Caspar David Freidrich or J.M.W Turner transposed onto the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains. But whereas younger American painters such as Albert Bierstadt had come into direct contact with The Düsseldorf School of painting, and thus with the tradition in which they placed themselves, Cole was largely self-tutored, representing something of the archetypal American figure of the auto-didact.
  • Thomas Cole is seen as the founding father of the Hudson River School , a group of American artists who sought to depict the untainted majesty of the American landscape, particularly that located around the Hudson River Valley in New York State. Cole was the first to explore this territory, taking steamboat trips up the valley from the mid-1820s onwards, and his work became a touchstone for a whole generation of American artists including Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Asher Brown Durand.
  • In many ways, Cole's art epitomizes all contradictions of European settler culture in America. He was in love with the sublime wildness of the American landscape, and sought to preserve it with his art, but his very presence in that landscape, and the development of his career, depended on the processes of urbanization and civilization which threatened it. From a modern perspective, Cole's Eurocentric gaze on seemingly empty wildernesses which had, in fact, been populated for centuries, also seems troubling; where Native Americans do appear in his work, as in Falls of the Kaaterskill (1826), it is as picturesque flecks rather than characterized participants in the scene.
  • Cole's paintings often serve as warnings about the destructive course of human civilization, offering portents of the devastation of the natural world, and the ceaseless spread of industry, which the American project seemed to represent. A deeply religious man, Cole saw these processes as transgressing God's will in some way, and various of his works imply that a moment of judgement or catastrophe might be imminent.

Important Art by Thomas Cole

Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill) (1825)

Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill)

Lake with Dead Trees is one of Cole's earliest works depicting the landscapes of the Catskill Mountains in south-east New York State. At the edge of a motionless lake, surrounded by dead trees, two deer are roused into action: one is poised and alert, the other leaps skittishly off to the right. Behind the dark wooded peaks sunlight streams through a cloudy sky. Interpreted as a meditation on the nature of life, death, and the passage of time, this was one of five paintings exhibited in New York City in November 1825 on Cole's return from his first major trip along the Hudson Valley. Their acclaim amongst his contemporaries helped to ground his reputation as a painter of the American wilds; the writer William Dunlap purchased this piece, and published several articles praising Cole's self-taught painting techniques. Cole's career was advanced further around this time when he met the Baltimore collector Robert Gilmor Jr., who would become an important patron to the artist. In terms of Cole's development as a painter, this image of untamed nature marks the start of his engagement with the Hudson River Valley as a source of inspiration. He once observed that "the most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive, characteristic of American scenery is its wilderness", and, for the first time in North-American art, Cole brought the impulses of a European Romantic landscape painter to bear on that wilderness: compare this painting to the work of Caspar David Friedrich, for example. Indeed, of all the Hudson River School artists, Cole was the most interested in conveying the Northern-European Romantic concept of the Sublime, whereby the viewer loses themself in the perception of a landscape whose scale and beauty are both inspiring and fearful.

Oil on canvas - Allen Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1827-28)

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

This painting depicts the moment in the Book of Genesis when God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Rather than focusing on the naked humanity of the couple, however, Cole dwarfs them within a natural setting whose scale and majesty symbolize heavenly power. Counterintuitively, the painting should be read from right to left, since the Garden of Eden was traditionally located in the east: from where fierce shards of light seem to forcibly evacuate the couple. The surrounding landscape is highly allegorical, a visual expression of Pathetic Fallacy, with the bright, cloudless skies of Eden offset against the brooding, stormy skies to the right. This relatively early work exemplifies Cole's interest in religious themes, and his desire to equate the unspoiled beauty of the American landscape with the manifestation of God's will. If works such as Lake with Dead Trees indicate the Romantic infusion in Cole's painting style, this work shows his affinity with the allegorical, Neoclassical landscape works of 17th-century European painters such as Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Dughet. Rather than depicting a version of a real landscape, in this case an imaginative landscape based on the American wilds forms the backdrop for a scene from mythical antiquity, each element of which is highly symbolically loaded. The framing and miniaturization of human activity within that larger scene is reminiscent of Neoclassical landscapes such as Nicholas Poussin's Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (1648). Expulsion from the Garden of Eden and similar works were not well-received when they debuted, perhaps because the American public was not yet ready to embrace Cole's apparent departure from the Romantic landscape style for which he was already well-known. This painting was also criticized by some commentators as being too similar to an engraving produced by John Martin for an edition of Milton's Paradise Lost (1667). Nonetheless, the painting demonstrates the breadth of Cole's historical influences, and was revealing in bringing to the surface the significant religious undercurrent in his work. Cole would return to religious painting towards the end of his life after joining the Episcopal Church.

Oil on canvas - Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts

The Consummation of Empire (1836)

The Consummation of Empire

The Consummation of Empire is one of a sequence of five paintings entitled The Course of Empire commissioned by Cole's patron Luman Reed, created between 1833 and 1836. Each painting in the series depicts the same landscape at a different stage of the rise and fall of an imaginary civilization. This, the middle painting in the series, represents the apparent triumph of that civilization, a scene crammed with classical porticos, rotundas and statuary, with a happy, colorful procession of citizens passing over the bridge in the centre. A statue of Minerva, goddess of wisdom, stands to the right, but seems to be ignored by the hordes beneath. In fact, the whole series was intended to serve as a warning about the over-weaning ambitions of Empire. Even this painting, which seems to depict that empire at the height of its power, anticipates its demise in the representation of a militaristic ruler carried aloft by the citizens. Later paintings in the sequence show the ruin of the city, and its eventual reclamation by nature, which in this image seems entirely subdued (as represented by the potted plant in the foreground). Anxious to create an epic series of paintings, and inspired by the Neoclassical masterpieces he had seen firsthand during his travels in Europe in 1829-32, Cole nonetheless showed his unique ability through The Course of Empire to capture the American spirit in his work. These paintings sound a note of both triumph - America had recently liberated itself from the British Empire - and caution: that the new state should not fall into the same traps as its European predecessors. More than that, the series seems to express Cole's anxiety about the encroaching threat of industry and urban expansion to the American landscape. The art historian Earl A. Powell sums up the cultural significance of Cole's series in stating that "[i]n its totality, The Course of Empire represents a truly heroic moment both in Cole's career and in the history of American painting. It was a paradigm of the Romantic spirit - melancholy, grand in conceptual scope, and didactic and moralizing - and it succeeded in delighting its audience." The Course of Empire shows an artist at the height of his powers, whose grand scope summed up the spirit of a nation.

Oil on canvas - The New-York Historical Society

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (1836)

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm

Usually referred to as The Oxbow , this painting shows two very different aspects of the American landscape. To the left of the canvas, dense grey clouds hang over a forest of green trees; to the right, the Connecticut River meanders gently through cultivated fields under a blue sky. A key painting in Cole's oeuvre, and arguably his best-known work, The Oxbow was created at a time when Cole was largely occupied with his Course of Empire series; his patron Luman Reed had advised him to take a break from that series, as Cole seemed to be showing signs of depression, and to return to the genre of Romantic landscape painting which he loved most of all. Whereas The Course of Empire stands as a stark warning on the fate of civilization, this painting presents a more complex, though still polemical, statement on the potential direction of American society. The uncultivated landscape to the left is at once threatening and enticing, while the cultivated land to the right presents an equivocal image of security, complicated by the presence of scar-lines in the forest on the far hills: signs of the aggressive over-husbandry of the land. Debate exists as to whether a written message can be made out in these marks, with some scholars believing that the lines were intended to spell out the word "Noah" in Hebrew, and would, from the aerial perspective of God, read "Shaddai" or "The Almighty". If that reading is accepted, then the landscape - which, after all, shows a floodplain - stands for the hubris of human society awaiting the cleansing force of divine judgement. Cole personalized the work by depicting himself at the center of the canvas. Gazing back at the viewer from between two crags, the minute figure of the artist preserves the landscape on his canvas before it is lost, and, perhaps, invites our own judgement on the scene. This personal element reflects Cole's feeling of emotional connection to the work, which now stands as one of the most quintessential examples of mid-19th-century North American landscape painting.

Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Voyage of Life: Youth (1840)

The Voyage of Life: Youth

This work shows a young man rowing a boat down a tree-lined river, towards a ghostly white palace in the sky; on the shore to the left, a guardian angel watches over him, offering him protection on his journey. This is the second in a series of four paintings completed by Cole during 1842 depicting the various stage of man's allegorical journey through life. The other three represent childhood, manhood and old age, with compositional elements and motifs such as the boat, the river, and the angel recurring throughout. The four stages of human life are reflected in the passage of the seasons across the paintings, nature serving as a mirror for man's emotional condition, in quintessential Romantic style. The Voyage of Life was commissioned by the banker Samuel Ward, and was meant to remind the viewer of the course that must be steered to secure a resting place in eternity. In so doing, these works tap into the cultural mood in America during the 1840s, when a period of intense religious revivalism was underway. At the same time, the 'voyage of life' may be read as an allegory for the progress of American civilization, which was, at this time, in a promising but uncertain stage of its growth. The compositional style exemplifies Cole's approach in combining rugged, American-style landscapes with motifs and techniques borrowed from European landscape painting in both the Neoclassical and Romantic styles. So popular were the Voyage of Life paintings that they became a source of dispute between Cole, who wanted to keep them on public display, and his patron Samuel Ward, who wanted to keep them for his own private collection, even refusing to sell the paintings back to the artist. In the end, Cole created a second version of the series while visiting Europe in 1842. On a personal note, he had converted to the Episcopal Church in 1941, and these paintings are the best example of the religiously allegorical work which he produced during the last years of his life. Their place and significance within his oeuvre was summed up by William Cullen Bryant during his speech at Cole's funeral, when he described them as "of simpler and less elaborate design than The Course of Empire , but more purely imaginative. The conception of the series is a perfect poem."

Oil on canvas - The Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York

The Architect's Dream (1840)

The Architect's Dream

As its title might suggest, the focal point of this painting is the young architect resting on a pile of books in the foreground, atop a classical column. Carved in the column is the dedication "Painted by T. Cole, For I. Town Arch, 1840", indicating the work's creation for the prominent American architect and engineer Ithiel Town. The rest of the canvas is filled with grand architectural monuments, including a vast Greco-Roman portico, a pyramid shrouded in mist in the background, and a medieval cathedral to the left. This work represents something of a stylistic departure for Cole, in that the natural landscape is not the primary focus. Offering instead a celebration of the history of architecture, Cole presents the young protagonist - presumably based on Town - admiring the great works of the past, implicitly suggesting that the American state, with the help of pioneers such as Town, might inherit and build on the cultural traditions which those works represent. Discussing this aspect of the painting the art historian Matthew Baigell states that "the architect, like the artist, fulfilled his function in society by calling to mind the highest achievements of the past as a way to guide society through the present and into the future. Such a point of view suggests a specific interpretation of the concept of Manifest Destiny - that America might become the new Rome, an improved version of European civilization, rather than a promised land for the chosen people, a new civilization separate and distinct from Europe." This painting also reflects Cole's own interest in, and occasional practice of, architecture: in 1938 he entered a competition to design the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, and he produced similar sketches and plans throughout his life. In this sense, the work, like the early portraits which Cole also composed, represents an element of his creative practice which is occasionally forgotten because of the central importance granted to his landscape works.

Oil on canvas - Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio

The Pic-Nic (1846)

The Pic-Nic

This painting depicts an idyllic scene of outdoor leisure activity, set amongst a glade of trees. To the left, a group of figures sits listening a man playing a guitar. Other, smaller clusters of people seem to have broken off from the central group, and sit on blankets eating and talking. On the lake in the background, a boat is rowed to the shore. Painted during the last years of the artist's life, this work is one of several created by Cole which present a very different aspect of the American landscape to the desolate wildernesses explored earlier in his career: the wild landscape has been tamed, converted into a picnic site. In one sense, this seems to imply an earnest celebration of the harmonious interaction of human activity and the natural environment; the scene has something of the quality of the Arcadian landscapes depicted in 16th-century Neoclassical painting. At the same time, features such as the hacked-off tree-stump in the foreground suggest a more ironic or resigned attitude to the presence of humankind amongst the wilderness. Certainly, the notion of the Sublime is no longer conveyed, and the work has a more composed, narrative quality than Cole's earlier landscape works. As a man who felt that "art, in its true sense, is, in fact, man's lowly imitation of the creative power of the Almighty," Cole must have struggled to come to terms with the progress of American society responsible for this kind of order. Indeed, it may have been his sense of the inevitable loss of his beloved wilderness that drew him deeper into his faith in the years before his death.

Oil on canvas - The Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York

Biography of Thomas Cole

Childhood and education.

Raised in Bolton-le-Moors, Thomas was the only boy amongst the eight children born to parents Mary and James Cole. His father was a woolen manufacturer who often moved the family around during Thomas's childhood, in search of better employment. This peripatetic lifestyle provided various opportunities for the young artist, including an apprenticeship in a printshop in Chorley at the age of fourteen, where he learned how to engrave designs for calico fabrics, and a period of work as an engraver in Liverpool during 1817. Cole developed a love of nature in his youth, and would often take walks with his sister Sarah to admire the landscapes of the north of England.

Early Training

Cole developed an early interest in North America through his reading, which would serve him well when the family relocated there in 1818. Still a teenager, Thomas initially remained in Philadelphia while the family moved on to Ohio; it was in Philadelphia that, in addition to working as a textile designer, he received an early commission to engrave illustrations for a new edition of the seventeenth-century puritan John Bunyan's book Holy War (1682). After a brief trip to the West Indies in 1819, Cole moved to Ohio to be near his family, and to help with the wallpaper business which his father had established. He studied painting for the first time, and was commissioned to create various portraits and landscapes.

thomas cole essay on american scenery summary

In 1823, Cole returned to Philadelphia, attending classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Two years later, ready to start a formal artistic career, he moved to New York; once he had settled in the city, he began to take trips along the Hudson River Valley to paint the American wilderness. The young artist felt an immediate sense of communion with the landscape of the area, which would remain with him throughout his life. The work which he created from this point onwards became the touchstone for the movement in Romantic landscape painting known as the Hudson River School. His own aims for that work are summed up in a poem from 1825, "The Wild":

Friends of my heart, lovers of nature's works, Let me transport you to those wild, blue mountains That rear their summits near the Hudson's wave [...]

He hoped that his depictions of the "blue mountains" of the Catskills might grant his viewers "a sweet foretaste of heaven". But Cole was under no illusions as to threats facing this heavenly landscape: even on his first trips up the Hudson, he would have encountered signs of industry - sawmills, tanneries, burned-over fields - amongst the beauty.

Mature Period

Cole's career received a major boost in 1825 when he sold paintings to two of the most prominent artists of the day, Asher Brown Durand and John Trumbull , and to the influential writer and historian William Dunlap. The following year, Cole was elected to the National Academy of Design, where he often exhibited.

Like all white American artists of the period, Cole's cultural background was European, and he felt it necessary to study the great masters of the Classical and Renaissance traditions to perfect his craft. So, in the summer of 1829, he set off on an extended tour of Europe, making a trip to the Niagara Falls just before leaving. As the artist put it, "I cannot think of going to Europe without having seen them. I wish to take 'a last lingering look' at our wild scenery. I shall endeavor to impress its features so strongly on my mind that in the midst of the fine scenery of other countries their grand and beautiful peculiarities shall not be erased." By the time of his trip, Cole's reputation as a landscape painter was already firmly established in his adopted country, to the extent that his friend, William Cullen Bryant, wrote a poem in honor of him just before his departure, entitled "To Cole, The Painter, Departing for Europe". In it, the author begs the artist not to forget the beauty of the New World amongst the wonders of European art history.

Cole learned much from his European visit, and was able to meet the English Romantic landscape painters John Constable and J M. W. Turner, as well as the portraitist Thomas Lawrence; the art historian Matthew Baigell suggests that Turner's cityscapes subsequently influenced the composition of Cole's Course of Empire series. He also showed his work in various exhibitions while abroad. Notably, while he was considered a progressive figure in America, he was reluctant to embrace some of the more radical stylistic developments evident in his British compatriots' work, in particular that of Turner, whom he felt focused too much attention on impressions of color and light. It was his time in Italy that Cole enjoyed most, stating: "I am not surprised that the Italian masters have painted so admirably as they have: Nature in celestial attire was their teacher."

Cole's return from Europe in November 1832 heralded the start of an important phase of development in his artistic career and in his personal life. In 1833, he met his future patron Luman Reed, for whom he began work on an iconic series of paintings entitled The Course of the Empire (1836). The same year, he married Maria Bartow, the niece of a farm-proprietor from whom Cole was renting a studio in Catskill, New York while he worked on the series. The couple decided to move permanently to Catskill, whose surrounding landscapes were a rich source of inspiration for Cole. It was there, in 1835, that he wrote his influential "Essay on American Scenery", which considers the encroaching threat of industrial development to the natural world: "there are those who regret that with the improvements of cultivation the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away: for those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has been lifted, affect the mind with a more deep toned emotion than aught which the hand of man has touched."

Late Period

Daguerreotype of Thomas Cole

The later years of Thomas Cole's career were ones of reflection and frequent sadness. He was deeply troubled by the onward march of urbanization and industrialization that seemed to threaten the American wilderness; he is said to have despised cities, finding, as Matthew Baigell puts it, "a presentiment of evil in them". Cole's paintings, meanwhile, still depicting the landscape, increasingly seemed to become vehicles for him to address issues such as the passage of time and history, as in his Voyage of Life (1842) series.

Cole was also suffering from a period of ill health, and in the summer of 1841, he decided to travel once more to Europe. Upon his return to New York a year later, he joined the Episcopal Church, and from this point onwards religion would play an increasingly central role in his life. Of the influence of spirituality on art he stated: "Art, in its true sense, is, in fact, man's lowly imitation of the creative power of the Almighty." In 1844, he agreed to take Frederic Edwin Church on as a pupil. This was a fortuitous decision, as Cole would greatly influence the young artist's work, through which the legacy of the Hudson River School, and of Cole's painting in particular, was ensured.

During the summer of 1847, perhaps longing once more for a glimpse of untainted nature, Cole traveled again to the Niagara Falls. This would prove to be his last major expedition, as he died in February the following year at the age of forty-seven. Summing up the power of Cole's work, his friend the author William Cullen Bryant stated in a eulogy delivered at the artist's funeral that "[t]he paintings of Cole are of that nature that it hardly transcends the proper use of language to call them acts of religion."

The Legacy of Thomas Cole

thomas cole essay on american scenery summary

While Romantic landscape painting was a firmly-established tradition in Europe by the early 19th century, Thomas Cole was the first artist to forge a version of that style centered on, and inspired by, the North-American landscape. In so doing, he effectively laid the foundations for the entire style of Romantic painting in North America. He is also considered the father of the Hudson River School, despite never specifically aligning himself with that or any other group. Cole's legacy is evident in the work of future American artists who advanced the Hudson River style, including his student Frederic Edwin Church , Albert Bierstadt , Jasper Cropsey , Asher B. Durand , George Inness , John Kensett , and Thomas Moran .

Speaking more broadly, a whole sweep of 20th-century North-American art, from Precisionism to Land Art , might be seen to have inherited something of the grand scale and ambition of Cole's work. In this sense, his paintings capture not only the character of American culture during the mid-19th century, but perhaps something more enduring about the open and expansive quality of that culture.

Influences and Connections

Claude Lorrain

Useful Resources on Thomas Cole

  • Thomas Cole Our Pick By Earl A. Powell
  • Thomas Cole By William H. Wallach, Allan Truettner
  • The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision By New-York Historical Society, Linda S. Ferber
  • Thomas Cole Our Pick By Matthew Baigell
  • Thomas Cole: The Artist as Architect By Annette Blaugrund and Franklin Kelly
  • Thomas Cole National Historic Site Our Pick Official website of the historical site featuring Thomas Cole's home and studio in Catskill, New York.
  • Unknown Thomas Cole Paintings Found at His Home The New York Times / July 1, 2015
  • OPEN HOUSE: Jason Middlebrook and Thomas Cole In this video artist Jason Middlebrook discusses his 2016 series of works inspired by the paintings of Thomas Cole and created specifically to be installed in Cole's home at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site
  • Thomas Cole National Historic Site This video discusses the art and life of Thomas Cole and the inspiration of the Hudson River Valley
  • Thomas Cole's Journey: Atlantic Crossing and Nineteenth-Century Landscape Painting Our Pick This video depicts a lecture on the art of Thomas Cole at the Yale Center for British Art. The lecture was given by Tim Barringer, Yale University's Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art on October 5, 2016

Similar Art

Joseph Mallord William Turner: The Fighting Temeraire Tugged To Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up (1839)

The Fighting Temeraire Tugged To Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up (1839)

Frederic Edwin Church: Heart of the Andes (1859)

Heart of the Andes (1859)

Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty (1970)

Spiral Jetty (1970)

Related artists.

Frederic Edwin Church Biography, Art & Analysis

Related Movements & Topics

The Hudson River School Art & Analysis

Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas


  1. Thomas Cole: Essay on American Scenery Flashcards

    thomas cole essay on american scenery summary

  2. Thomas Cole and the Decorative Arts

    thomas cole essay on american scenery summary

  3. thomas cole: new england scenery

    thomas cole essay on american scenery summary

  4. ️ Thomas cole essay on american scenery. Thomas cole essay on american scenery. 2019-02-01

    thomas cole essay on american scenery summary

  5. Thomas Cole (1801–1848)

    thomas cole essay on american scenery summary

  6. Thomas Cole: a Fresh Look at the Father of American Landscape

    thomas cole essay on american scenery summary


  1. What Is the Summary of the Thomas Paine “The American Crisis”?

    In The American Crisis articles, Thomas Paine wrote of his support for an independent and self-governing America during the trials of the American Revolution in 1776. The American Crisis is the formal name of the papers. There are 13 of the...

  2. What Is a Summary of “The Selling of Joseph”?

    “The Selling of Joseph,” an essay by Samuel Sewall, includes legal, moral, practical and biblical arguments against slavery and was the first anti-slavery material published in New England.

  3. What Is a Summary of the American Revolution?

    The American Revolution was a war for independence by the American colonies against Great Britain. It began in 1775 and lasted until 1783, with the Americans winning the war. According to historians, the British had the superior army.

  4. Analyzing Thomas Cole's Essay On American Scenery

    In Thomas Cole's Essay on American Scenery, the reader is able to appreciate Cole's predilection and love for the American scenery.

  5. Essay on American Scenery

    Introduction]. The essay, which is here offered, is a mere sketch of an almost illimitable subject--American. Scenery; and in selecting the theme the writer

  6. Thomas Cole

    Thomas Cole's “Essay on American Scenery” suggests that he paints natural scenes to experience a particular emotional response—one he

  7. American Scenery--Thomas Cole vs NASA

    In this essay, Cole argues that scenery is a valid subject for artists, and an important value to be treasured by citizens. He makes esthetic

  8. Spotlight Essay: Thomas Cole

    [9] Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery,” The American Monthly Magazine

  9. Thomas Cole: Essay on American Scenery Flashcards

    He's referring to nature, the wilderness -- the whole of the American landscape. He describes this heritage for those who "can see and feel" as "the loveliness

  10. Wilderness, settlement, American identity

    Cole sought to represent the sublime grandeur of the American landscape. The painting represents his conflicted feelings over the inevitable loss of wilderness

  11. Thomas Cole (1801–1848)

    What Trumbull recognized in the work of the young painter was the perception of wildness inherent in American scenery that landscape artists had theretofore

  12. Thomas Cole Paintings, Bio, Ideas

    "The painter of American scenery has, indeed, privileges superior to any other. ... Summary of Thomas Cole. The paintings of Thomas Cole, like the

  13. Thomas Cole (1801-1848) from 'Essay on American Scenery'

    [...] 10 Thomas Cole (1801-1848) from 'Essay on American Scenery'. Cole was the principal figure in the establishment of the Hudson River School of painting.

  14. The Concept of the Sublime in the Works of Thomas Cole and ...

    I32, i9I; Cole, "Essay on American Scenery," p. 3. Page 9. 442 American Literature spoke of the primal curse which affected th.