Thomas Cole, a painter known for his romantic depictions of the American landscape, was born in Lancashire, north-west England, in 1801. Growing up, he had first-hand experience of the dark side of the industrial revolution. At the age of 12, he witnessed Luddites smashing machinery in a local mill. At 15 he was forced to a take a job as an engraver at another mill when his father’s business failed.
When he was 17, he emigrated with his family to America, living in Ohio and then Philadelphia before settling in the Catskill Mountains in New York state, where he would spend the rest of his life. He had begun to paint shortly after arriving in America, and his gift was soon noticed by collectors. Today, he is seen as the father of American landscape painting.
For Cole, the most impressive thing about America’s scenery, especially when compared to the cultivated lands of old Europe, was the “sublimity of the wilderness”. It made up for its lack of history – what he called “the want of associations” – which, like many settlers, he felt keenly.
He was alarmed at the expansionist policies of President Andrew Jackson and the destruction of American wilderness that gained pace throughout the 1830s, encouraged by policies like the Indian Removal Act, which made the occupation of Native American lands official government policy. The doctrine of manifest destiny, which proclaimed the God-given mission of European Americans to occupy the continent from ocean to ocean, was still some years from being formally articulated. But he knew that economic development was often accompanied by violent upheaval. His paintings served to warn as much as to celebrate.
“Scene from ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund” (1827)
This painting depicts an event toward the end of “The Last of the Mohicans”, a novel by Cole’s friend, James Fenimore Cooper, in which a captive white woman, Cora Munro, beseeches Tamenund, the venerable sage of the Delaware, a Native American tribe, to set her free. The real subject, however, is the Hudson River valley. Cole was searching for an American mythos to match the classical past in European painting.
“The Course of Empire: The Savage State” (about 1834)
With the support of his patrons, Cole sailed for England in 1829 in an attempt to acquire both the technical armoury and the cultural knowledge he felt his work still lacked. In London he met both Turner and Constable, and started to plan what would become “The Course of Empire”, a didactic cycle of history paintings about the rise and fall of a civilisation, drawing on examples from European history. “The Savage State” is the first picture in the series. Despite the teepees on a plateau to the right-hand side, the people in this painting look more like Neolithic Europeans.
“The Course of Empire: The Pastoral or Arcadian State” (about 1834)
After two years in England, he set off for the Roman Campagna, the countryside around Rome. The area was a favourite subject of Claude Lorrain, a French landscape painter Cole came to revere, and is an obvious influence here, in the second picture in “The Course of Empire”. This is Cole’s vision of an ideal America: a peaceful, cultured, productive community, living in harmony with nature.
“The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire” (1835–6)
The largest of the five paintings in the series, “The Consummation of Empire” depicts a garish but dazzling classical city – the capital of the notional empire. It is set in the same location as the first two pictures, but the wilderness has been replaced by buildings. In an echo of the decline of the Roman empire, the achievements of civilisation have made the people in this painting prosperous but also decadent – unwitting agents in their imminent demise. Implicit here is a critique of America’s emerging capitalist class and also, perhaps, the British empire.
“The Course of Empire: Destruction” (1836)
In the fourth painting of the series, the great imperial city is sacked, its downfall inevitable after the hubris of the previous painting. As a young man, Cole had absorbed the apocalyptic works of John Martin, an English Romantic whose paintings were popular in America in the form of prints. This image brings to mind the fire and brimstone of Martin’s painting, “Belshazzar’s Feast”. It has a clear message for any nation whose reach exceeds its grasp.
“The Course of Empire: Desolation” (1836)
The first image in the series depicted the dawn. Here, in the last painting, is a rising moon. Cole put everything he had learned in Italy into this picture, most tangibly a melancholic sense that human beings and their works are ultimately at the mercy of both their own vanity and the ravages of time. But while he meant his cycle to be a warning to a young country growing in confidence and ambition, many of those who came to view it when first exhibited in New York City in 1836 saw something quite different. For them, the rise and fall of a great classical civilisation represented the probable fates of the European countries from which America had freed itself; America, on the other hand, was a new kind of society in which, so they believed, the catastrophe unfolding over “The Course of Empire” could never happen.
“View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm – The Oxbow” (1836)
In the midst of his labours on “The Course of Empire”, Cole broke off to paint “The Oxbow”, his most celebrated work. A radiant image of the Connecticut River in Massachusetts, the painting balances the vision of a dark wilderness, teeming with life, with a bright view of cultivated pastures in the lowlands beyond. With more subtlety than in “The Course of Empire”, Cole reasserts his belief that the close proximity of untamed nature is essential to the health of any human society. At the base of the picture, in the foreground, the painter depicts himself turning from the easel at which he is working to look directly at the viewer, as if to impress upon us the significance of his chosen view, perhaps worried that, out of sheer stupidity, we will never care enough about the natural world to prevent it being destroyed. “We are still in Eden,” he writes in his “Essay on American Scenery”; “the wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly.”
Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire National Gallery until October 7th