British-born Romantic landscape painter Thomas Cole was the founder of the first American school of painting. ‘The Hudson River School’ concerned itself with the realistic and detailed portrayal of nature. He was more than just a brilliant artist; he was also a prolific poet, writer and theorist, whose influential role in the New York art community fostered the careers of many Hudson River School artists.
Thomas Cole was born in Bolton, Lancashire, England on February 1, 1801. At seventeen, his family immigrated to the United States and settled in Ohio. His father set up shop as a wallpaper maker, where young Thomas helped to create the wallpaper designs. Before moving to the U.S., he had received training in drawing and wood engraving from a designer of calico prints, an interest that evolved into a passion for portraiture and landscape painting. He spent some time in Pittsburgh in 1823 before moving to Philadelphia a year later, where he worked as an engraver and enrolled himself in the Philadelphia Academy of Art.
In 1825, upon Cole’s move to New York City, Asher B. Durand (who became a good friend to the artist) began purchasing his work and finding him patrons. He sold three paintings to George W. Bruen, who became a great admirer and financed Cole’s trip to the Hudson Valley where he painted the Catskill Mountains and the ruins of Fort Putnam. A first exhibition of his landscapes in New York City in 1825 attracted a great amount of attention and gained him important patrons such as painter John Trumbull, Robert Gilmor, and Daniel Wadsworth. The exposure established him as a leader in Romantic landscape painting in America. ‘Lake Winnepesaukee’ was composed from a sketch made on a trip through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was shown at the National Academy of Design in 1828, where a year later Thomas Cole became one of its founding members.
Thomas Cole embarked on a lengthly trip to visit England and Italy; in Florence, he shared a residence with sculptor Horatio Greenough. He spent his time painting and studying landscapes of the European masters. His travels allowed him to explore and experiment with a more symbolic style that expressed moral issues and ideals. He was commissioned in 1832 to paint his five famous allegorical scenes, represented in the series ‘The Course of Empire’, a five-canvas epic depicting the rise and fall of a civilization. While these works were well received, some patrons preferred his identifiable American scenes.
Upon his return to New York in 1827, he met and later married Maria Bartow in 1836. He set up a studio in Catskill, New York, where he became a year-round resident and continued to create breathtaking landscapes.
Thomas Cole died February 11th, 1848 at the age of forty-seven, after several months of poor health. After his death, he was memorialized in a painting by Asher Durand. Cole’s work provided the foundation for the native landscape school that dominated American painting until the late 1860s. His influence gave birth to a generation of native artists who continue to focus on painting the beauty of the American wilderness.