View from Mount Holyoke (The Oxbow), c.1836 Thomas Cole [1801-1848]
Thomas Cole was born in Bolton-le-Moor, Lancashire, England, February 1, 1801. • His father, a woolen manufacturer, moved the family to Philadelphia in 1819, where he opened a dry-goods shop while Thomas took up wood-engraving which he had already practiced at Liverpool.
The family soon moved to Steubenville, Ohio, where the father set up a wallpaper factory; • Thomas remained in Philadelphia. • Thomas rejoined his family in 1820, aiding his father in the manufacture of wallpaper.
His chance meeting with an itinerant portrait painter named Stein resulted in his decision to become an artist. • Stein taught him the rudiments of mixing color and lent him a treatise on the theory of color. • He had little success painting portraits, and his interest shifted to landscape.
Since the wallpaper business was losing money, his father decided to move to Pittsburgh in 1823. • Thomas again remained behind, painting, but soon joined his family to help in his father’s newest venture: manufacturing floor coverings. • He next spent some months in Philadelphia and then rejoined his family who had moved to New York City.
A New York merchant, George W. Bruen, who had admired some of Cole’s studio paintings, paid his steamboat fare up the river to explore the Catskills. • Cole took the three oil paintings that resulted from this trip to a frame shop on Broadway in New York City where they were seen by Col. John Trumbull, president of the American Academy of Fine Arts and, at the time, one of the most influential men in New York art circles. • Trumbull introduced Cole’s work to collectors and artists alike and from then on his fame spread. • The Hudson River School of landscape painting was launched.
He is regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School, an American art movement that flourished in the mid-19th century. • Cole's Hudson River School, as well as his own work, was known for its realistic and detailed portrayal of American landscape and wilderness, which feature themes of romanticism and naturalism.
Romanticism (or the Romantic Era) was a complex artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Europe, and gained strength in reaction to the Industrial Revolution. • In part, it was a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and a reaction against the scientific rationalisation of nature • It embodied most strongly in the visual arts, music, and literature, but had a major impact on historiography, education and natural history.
Over the next few years he would spend many weeks in travel and the exploration of scenery in the Catskills and the White Mountains.
In 1826 Cole was invited to become a founder of the National Academy of Design.
In June 1829 he sailed for England, where he stayed for two years; • He toured France and Italy before returning to New York in November 1832. • After 1827 Cole maintained a studio at the farm called Cedar Grove in the town of Catskill, New York. He painted a significant portion of his work in this studio.
In 1836 he married Maria Bartow of Catskill, a niece of the owner, and became a year-round resident. • Thomas and Maria had five children: • Theodore Alexander Cole, born January 1, 1838 • Mary Bartow Cole, born September 23, 1839 • Emily Cole, born August 27, 1843 • Elizabeth Cole, born April 5, 1847 (died in infancy) • Thomas Cole, Jr., born September 16, 1848
Romanticism • The movement validated strong emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and terror and awe— • especially that which is experienced in confronting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque qualities.
His two most famous works, • "The Course of Empire" and • "The Voyage of Life," • were commissioned by Luman Reed and Samuel Ward, respectively, both of whom died before the works were completed.
The Course of Empire • The first painting, The Savage State, shows the valley from the shore opposite the crag, in the dim light of a dawning stormy day. • A hunter clad in skins hastens through the wilderness, pursuing a deer; canoes paddle up the river; on the far shore can be seen a clearing with a cluster of wigwams around a fire, the nucleus of the city that is to be. • The visual references are those of Native American life.
The Arcadian or Pastoral State • In the second painting, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, the sky has cleared and we are in the fresh morning of a day in spring or early summer. • The viewpoint has shifted further down the river, as the crag with the boulder is now on the left-hand side of the painting; a forked peak can be seen in the distance beyond it. • Much of the wilderness has given way to settled lands, with plowed fields and lawns visible.
The Course of Empire • Various activities go on in the background: plowing, boat-building, herding sheep, dancing; in the foreground, an old man sketches what may be a geometrical problem with a stick. • On a bluff on the near side of the river, a megalithic temple has been built, and smoke (presumably from sacrifices) arises from it. • The images reflect an idealized, pre-urban ancient Greece.
The Consummation of Empire • The third painting, The Consummation of Empire, shifts the viewpoint to the opposite shore, approximately the site of the clearing in the first painting. • It is noontide of a glorious summer day. Both sides of the river valley are now covered in colonnaded marble structures, whose steps run down into the water. • The megalithic temple seems to have been transformed into a huge domed structure dominating the river-bank. • The mouth of the river is guarded by two pharoses, and ships with lateen sails go out to the sea beyond.
A joyous crowd throngs the balconies and terraces as a scarlet-robed king or victorious general crosses a bridge connecting the two sides of the river in a triumphal procession. • In the foreground an elaborate fountain gushes. • The overall look suggests the height of ancient Rome.
The Destruction of Empire • The fourth painting, has almost the same perspective as the third, though the artist has stepped back a bit to allow a wider scene of the action, and moved almost to the center of the river. • The action is the sack and destruction of the city, in the course of a tempest seen in the distance. It seems that a fleet of enemy warriors has overthrown the city's defenses, sailed up the river, and is busily firing the city and killing and raping its inhabitants.
The bridge across which the triumphal procession had crossed is broken; a makeshift crossing strains under the weight of soldiers and refugees. • Columns are broken, fire breaks from the upper floors of a palace on the river bank. In the foreground a statue of some venerable hero stands headless, still striding forward into the uncertain future, reminiscent of the hunter in the first painting. • The scene is perhaps suggested by the Vandalsack of Rome in 455.
Desolation • The fifth painting, shows the results, years later. We view the remains of the city in the livid light of a dying day. • The landscape has begun to return to wilderness, and no human beings are to be seen; but the remnants of their architecture emerge from beneath a mantle of trees, ivy, and other overgrowth. • The broken stumps of the pharoses loom in the background.
The arches of the shattered bridge, and the columns of the temple are still visible; a single column looms in the foreground, now a nesting place for birds. • The sunrise of the first painting is mirrored here by a moonrise, a pale light reflecting in the ruin-choked river while the standing pillar reflects the last rays of sunset. • Sic transit gloria mundi. that means "Thus passes the glory of the world". It has been interpreted as "Worldly things are fleeting."
Of "The Course of Empire," James Fenimore Cooper said it was "the work of the highest genius this country has ever produced." • The series was exhibited in the fall of 1836 and then was stored until it was donated to the New-York Historical Society in 1858.
The Voyage of Life • Was well received by critics and the public; • The United States was experiencing the religious revival sometimes known as the Second Great Awakening. • The four paintings were converted to engravings by James Smillie (1807–1885) after Cole's death • The engravings widely distributed in time for the Third Great Awakening, giving the series the prestige and popular acclaim it retains today.
Childhood, all the important story elements of the series are introduced: • the voyager, the angel, the river, and the expressive landscape. • An infant is safely ensconced in a boat guided by an angel. The landscape is lush; everything is calm and basking in warm sunshine, reflecting the innocence and joy of childhood. • The boat glides out of a dark, craggy cave which Cole himself described as "emblematic of our earthly origin, and the mysterious Past." The river is smooth and narrow, symbolizing the sheltered experience of childhood. • The figurehead on the prow holds an hourglass representing time.
Youth, shows the same rich, green landscape, but here the view widens as does the voyager's experience. • Now the youth grabs the tiller firmly as the angel watches and waves from the shore, allowing him to take control. • The boy's enthusiasm and energy is evident in his forward-thrusting pose and billowing clothes. • In the distance, a ghostly castle hovers in the sky, a white and shimmering beacon that represents the ambitions and dreams of man.
To the youth, the calm river seems to lead straight to the castle, but at the far right of the painting one can just glimpse the river as it becomes rough, choppy, and full of rocks. • Cole comments on the landscape and the youth's ambitions: "The scenery of the picture--its clear stream, its lofty trees, its towering mountains, its unbounded distance, and transparent atmosphere--figure forth the romantic beauty of youthful imaginings, when the mind elevates the Mean and Common into the Magnificent, before experience teaches what is the Real."
Manhood, the youth has grown into an adult and now faces the trials of life. • The boat is damaged and the tiller is gone. The river has become a terrible rush of white water with menacing rocks, dangerous whirlpools, and surging currents. • The warm sunlight of youth has been clouded over with dark and stormy skies and torrential rains. • The trees have become wind-beaten, gnarled, leafless trunks. The fresh grass is gone, replaced by hard and unforgiving rock.
In the boat, the man no longer displays confidence or even control. • The angel appears high in the sky, still watching over the man, who does not see the angel. • Man must rely on his faith that the angel is there to help him. Cole states, "Trouble is characteristic of the period of Manhood. • In childhood, there is no carking care: in youth, no despairing thought.
It is only when experience has taught us the realities of the world, that we lift from our eyes the golden veil of early life; • That we feel deep and abiding sorrow: • The gloomy, eclipse-like tone, the conflicting elements, the trees riven by tempest, are the allegory; • The Ocean, dimly seen, figures the end of life, which the Voyager is now approaching."
There is a strong emphasis on the diagonal: in the rocks which jut up, steep and forbidding, and the river which sweeps downward, threatening to carry anything in or on it over the precipitous drop to the twisting and foaming rapids in the mid-ground. • The extreme narrowness of the passage between the two rock face heightens the tension as the viewer tries to determine whether or not a small craft could navigate these tumultuous waters. • In addition, evil spirits stare down from the dark clouds above.
It is only in the distant background that the viewer captures a glimpse of the horizon. • This line, where the distant ocean meets the sunset colored sky, is the only horizontal line in the painting. • Amidst the chaos and confusion of the wild scene in the foreground, one catches a glimpse of possible serenity. • Cole has positioned this focal point just below and to the right of center. The combination of the lone horizontal and warm color in an otherwise dark and forbidding scene, beckons the viewer’s eye back again and again.
The silhouette of a gnarled tree trunk opposes the diagonals of the rocks and river, forcing the eye back into the scene. • Here the twisted and rotting trunk is used, as it often is in Cole’s work, as a symbol for the savage (untamed) wilderness and all its dangers. • The funnel-shaped cloud that appears above the tree leads the eye up into the forbidding clouds of the sky, over the top and to the left, where the downward arc of the clouds forces it back down again into the river.
Old Age, is an image of death. The man has grown old; he has survived the trials of life. • The waters have calmed; the river flows into the waters of eternity. The figurehead and hourglass are missing from the battered boat; • The withered old voyager has reached the end of earthly time. In the distance, angels are descending from heaven, while the guardian angel hovers close, gesturing toward the others.