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Though he was born and educated in England, Thomas Cole,  his work was quintessentially American. Not only did his realist landscapes determine, in large measure, the trajectory of American painting in the 19th Century, they helped shape how a young nation came to view the Western Frontier.

A Rocky Glen (Thomas Cole - 1846)

In the days before we were bombarded with imagery, a century before Television, when even newspapers contained nary a photograph, Americans got their “news” through the work of painters, illustrators, and engravers. Cole and his artistic progeny, first the Hudson River School and later the artists who swarmed over the American West, were the eyes through which we saw our wilderness landscape. Those eyes showed us beauty without limits, but what we saw was, in the final analysis, a storehouse of wealth to exploit without restraint. That probably wasn’t Cole’s intent, but its is his legacy.

Cole never really traveled beyond the tamed, civilized wilderness of the Eastern United States. He left it to his successors, like Moran and Bierstadt, to explore the trackless expanses beyond the Mississippi River. When those other artists traveled West, Cole’s spirit went with them. American landscapes of the period leaned toward large, if not in size than at least in scope. People, if they were in the frame at all, were generally tiny in order to emphasize the scale of the chosen vista. Collectively these artists created an American ideal that exists in our consciousness to this day. Their contribution to our identity is incalculable.

Niagara Falls (Thomas Cole-1830)

I had the exquisite experience last year of standing in a large gallery stuffed with 19th Century American landscapes at the Detroit Institute of Art late last year (DIA has over 2000 works by Cole in it’s collection, mostly drawings). It was moving in a way that was pretty difficult to describe, but whatever it was that I was feeling was enhanced by understanding of just how significant this room full of paintings had been in the development of MY country, My America.

American Lake Scene (Thomas Cole-1844)

It’s surprising in a way the very best piece I’ve ever seen about the work and importance of the American Realists of the 19th Century comes from an Australian, Robert Hughes, in his book American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, a book I highly recommend even to people with only a passing interest in art. As a critic, Hughes is both highly capable and highly opinionated. I think the fact that a number of living American artists detest him is a compelling recommendation of his work. Anyway, he had this to say about the work of Cole and his successors

“It was pure, and pointed to it’s Creator. The wilderness, for nineteenth-century American artists, is mostly stress-free. Its God is an American God whose Gospel is Manifest Destiny. It is pious and full of uplift. No wonder it was so quickly absorbed as metaphor of religious experience by the first mass audience American art was to reach. It dovetailed so well for the piety of its time.” (American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America: Robert Hughes (1997), 140-41)

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  1. […] landscapes lack the theatricality that we find in the 19th-Century American landscapes of Cole or Church, but the idea that simple landscapes were suitable subject matter for serious painting was […]

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