Curious about the developing art scene across the pond and eager to study the masters, Cole set off on a European tour in 1829 and spent the next three years largely in London and Italy. He tested the market for his work in London, which turned out to be tepid, but he picked up all kinds of lasting impressions on his journey, from Rome’s classical ruins to the idyllic 17th-century landscapes of
of his revered British landscape contemporaries,
When Cole finally returned to New York in 1832, the city’s fixation on commerce and materialism had only intensified—a disappointment for the artist. He moved to the town of Catskill, New York, only to watch the wilderness diminish. If forests weren’t vanishing to the lumber industry or being replaced with roads and railways, they were leveled for tanneries, factories, and farms.
In his 1836 manifesto-like “Essay on American Scenery,” Cole sounded the alarm. “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,” he wrote. “The wayside is becoming shadeless, and another generation will behold spots, now rife with beauty, desecrated by what is called improvement; which, as yet, generally destroys Nature’s beauty without substituting that of Art.”
Cole’s anxieties about America’s future culminated visually in “The Course of Empire” (1833–36), a dramatic allegorical series clearly indebted to the romantic landscapes, history paintings, and classical ruins he saw in Europe. With obvious allusions to the fall of the Roman Empire, the five landscapes, which he exhibited privately in New York in 1836, detail the pessimistic rise and fall of an unnamed civilization, from The Savage State through the Arcadian or Pastoral State; Consummation of Empire; Destruction; and Desolation.
That same year, 1836, he painted his most famous picture, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow (1836). The vivid panoramic scene posits two opposing forces against one another: the verdant, wild woods versus miles of denuded farmland. At the center is the painter with his easel, situated on the side of the woods, but observing the farmland below.
“He was consistent in his celebration of the aesthetic and spiritual power of the natural wilderness; his fascination with the life cycle of civilizations was informed by deep anxieties about the ecological danger presented by the rise of modern industry, the growth of cities, and the worship of money,” writes Tim Barringer, Yale art history professor and co-curator of the exhibition “Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings,” which originated at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art
in early 2018 and has since traveled to London’s National Gallery
When Cole died unexpectedly in 1848 at the age of 47, after a short bout with lung troubles, a generation of younger artists, who would become the Hudson River School, were quick to adapt his panoramic, romantic visions in the name of American pride.