Thomas Cole’s Majestic Wildernesses and Dark Satanic Mills

A feast at the Met looks at the founder of the Hudson River School, and the visionaries who inspired him.


Thomas Cole, like us, lived in interesting times. Born in 1801, he grew up in an England disrupted by the industrial revolution and unsettled by the fervid passions of romanticism, where the poet and painter William Blake wrote of a “green and pleasant land” being overrun by “dark satanic mills.” Art historian Tim Barringer sums up this period in the catalogue accompanying the Met’s wide-ranging exhibition “Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings”: “Mechanization, offering profit for investors and entrepreneurs, often caused entire occupational groups, such as the skilled handloom weavers of Bolton [Cole’s hometown], to be cast from relative prosperity into poverty,” a situation that led to riots, arson, and attacks on mills that were “weaving by steam.” Like Blake, many displaced workers viewed the flames tinting the night skies as precursors to God’s vengeance on corrupt church leaders and rapacious capitalists, strains of apocalyptic thought that would drive England’s romantic movement as well as Cole’s life’s work.

When Cole was in his early teens he found work carving designs into woodblocks for fabric patterns, another job that would soon disappear, as England’s international textile industry — fueled in part with cotton grown by slaves in the young United States of America — continued to shift from handwrought craft to mechanized drudgery. In 1818, Cole’s father, a serial failure in business, moved the family from England to America, where Thomas was apprenticed to an engraver in Philadelphia. The family then moved to Ohio, where Cole, bored with his father’s wallpaper business, studied with an itinerant portrait painter and taught himself from a British painting manual and by drawing from plaster casts. The Met’s exhibition includes some of his early nature studies, such as an 1823 ink drawing of a gnarled tree.

In 1825, Cole traveled to New York City, which was then becoming an important hub of international trading and had a thriving market in both European and domestic art prints. A specialty of the nineteenth-century art world was spectacularly painted, room-size panoramas, a genre described by its inventor as “an entire view of any country or situation, as it appears to an observer turning quite round.” This concept would have a profound influence on Cole.

Early success with landscapes painted in the Catskills — which, in the mid 1820s, was still a rough-and-tumble region rife with wildlife — made Cole a founding member of the National Academy of Design, in 1826, but it was in 1829, when he returned to England to study, that his artistic path began to solidify. In London the ambitious young artist was dazzled by the visceral brushwork and narrative drama of Joseph Mallord William Turner’s 1812 Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, in which tiny figures make their way under clawing gray clouds. The sun, glaring like the eye of a leviathan, has been painted as thickly and emphatically as an egg yolk. Born in 1775, Turner had grown well past any academic restraints. But Cole aspired to be a gentleman, and was taken aback by his elder’s demeanor, later writing in his sketchbook: “I had expected to see an older looking man with a countenance pale with thought, but I was entirely mistaken. He has a common form and common countenance, and there is nothing in his appearance or conversation indicative of genius. He looks like a seafaring man, a mate of a coasting vessel, and his manners were in accordance with his appearance.… I can scarcely reconcile my mind to the idea that he painted those grand pictures. The exterior so belies its inhabitant the soul.”

Both Turner and another towering figure of British landscape painting, John Constable, displayed a bodily engagement with their materials, through thick vortexes and gossamer slashes of paint. Cole would eventually subjugate this to clarity and refinement in his own work. Compare in the exhibition Constable’s small 1825 oil sketch Study of a Cloudy Sky to Cole’s similarly sized Stormy Landscape (1832). Through darting washes and bright squiggles, Cole conveys the glistening luminescence of capricious weather, but Constable does him one better in capturing nature’s elemental forces with brushstrokes that thrust with the power of a boxer’s uppercut. Included in the show are canvases by other English romantics, who depicted apocalyptic deluges and divine destruction, scenes that reinforced Cole’s own view, imparted during his childhood, that the Garden of Eden was always under siege from man’s greed.

From London, Cole embarked on a grand tour of Europe. In Italy he studied centuries of masterpieces and painted deep-perspective vistas of tumbledown Roman aqueducts crowned with weeds, as well as other tableaux of civilization gone to seed. He returned to America in 1832, and two years later took the oath of American citizenship on the same day various factions battled with knives and clubs and destroyed ballot boxes during New York City’s first mayoral election. It was an ugly time in Cole’s new country, which was led by the wealthy, slave-holding, pro-states’-rights populist Andrew Jackson. Cole wrote of his new president, “It appears to me that the moral principle of the nation is much lower than formerly.… It is with sorrow that I anticipated the downfall of pure Republican government — its destruction will be a death blow to Freedom — for if the Free government of the U[nited] states cannot exist a century where shall we turn? The hope of the wise and the good will have perished and scenes of tyranny and wrong, blood and oppression such as have been acted since the world was created — will be again performed as long as man lasts.”

It was in this mood that Cole turned his analytical eye toward broad sweeps of history. In the passionately ambitious series The Course of Empire (1834–36), five large canvases enclose the viewer in a half-round of intensely colored, obsessively detailed, sumptuously imagined events. The first, The Savage State, features a bowman and other figures in poses from classical European antiquity, surrounded by a majestic landscape dotted with teepees and canoes. By the time Cole was working on this canvas, however, the Native American population of the Eastern U.S. had already been decimated, and still more were being resettled west of the Mississippi River as a result of President Jackson’s signing of the Indian Removal Act — brutal legislation that led to death by disease, starvation, and exposure of thousands of human beings along the Trail of Tears.

Cole continued his more idyllic vision with a scene of Arcadian splendor that leads to the centerpiece, The Consummation of Empire, in which grandiose architecture and affluent crowds now cover the epic wilderness found in the first two paintings. Sunlight cascades over opulent drapery and classical columns, yet Cole provides us a glimpse of troubles ahead by illustrating that all this pageantry is in honor of a conquering hero returning with the spoils of subjugated lands. This representation of aggressive war can be read as the artist’s warning that America’s young democracy must avoid the rot inherent to royalty and warlords, and he drives this point home with the final paintings in the series, Destruction and Desolation. In Destruction we see buildings aflame and bridges collapsing under the weight of citizens fleeing rampaging warriors. Cole’s richly detailed naturalism — whether the milling crowds in Consummation or herons nesting amid the ruins of Desolation — pulls viewers in to discover the multiple layers of his narrative, the crucial concept being that man’s loftiest achievements are but an eye blink in the course of nature’s patient, inexorable dominion. Cole brings us full circle — the natural landmark of a craggy promontory in the first painting also dominates the background of the last, but instead of the lush, untamed vegetation foregrounded in The Savage State, we get weeds jutting through tumbledown walls and vines climbing columns that no longer support roofs. As Ozymandias, King of Kings, laments in Shelley’s verse:

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

In later works, Cole focused on the scenery of upstate New York: hunters laden with fresh game returning to waiting wives lofting waving babies, picnickers gathering flowers near meandering rivers that reflect lush foliage and regal mountains. This is the pastoral America Cole wished to preserve from the wanton greed of the Jacksonian era — he had witnessed what environmental degradation and class warfare wrought in the country of his birth. And while Cole’s paintings could not stave off the deflowering of America’s virgin wilderness, he did inspire a generation of artists to capture the beauty of the Hudson River valley and beyond. One of Cole’s students, Frederic Edwin Church, managed to marry Cole’s exacting observation with a measure of the sublime abandon found in the work of Turner and Constable. Church reveled in nature’s most garish moments, and shortly after Cole died, in 1848, the student honored his teacher with a painting featuring one of Cole’s favorite vantage points on a Catskill mountaintop. It is early morning, and the rising sun is burning through clouds so pink they might be on the verge of ignition. A solitary bird stands in for Cole’s journey to the heavens.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 17, 2018

‘Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings’
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Through May 13