Childhood & Early Life
Thomas Cole was born on February 1, 1801, in Bolton, Lancashire, England, to Mary and James Cole. He had seven sisters. His father worked as a woollen manufacturer and regularly had to relocate for better employment opportunities. His family moved along with him. One of Cole’s sisters was Sarah Cole, who was also a landscape painter.
The nomadic lifestyle brought multiple opportunities to the aspiring artist. When he was 14 years old, he apprenticed in a print shop in Chorley where he was taught the intricacies of engraving designs for calico fabrics. In 1817, he spent some time being employed as an engraver in Liverpool.
Cole and his family moved to US in 1818. While the family briefly stayed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, before moving to Steubenville, Ohio, Cole stayed back in Philadelphia and was employed as a textile designer.
He was commissioned for illustration engravings for a new edition of the book ‘Holy War’ (1682) by John Bunyan. Later, Cole relocated to Ohio to be close to his family and joined his father’s wallpaper business.
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When Thomas Cole was 22 years old, he went back to Philadelphia and joined the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Two years later, he travelled to New York to begin his career as a painter. After settling in the city, he regularly travelled along the Hudson River Valley in order to create works on American wilderness.
The paintings he made from this point onwards would serve as the foundation for the romantic art movement in landscape painting that became popular as the Hudson River School.
In 1825, one of the most significant moments of his early career took place when Colonel John Trumbull and the painter Asher B. Durand acquired some of his paintings after spotting them in a New York shop window. Furthermore, Trumbull and Durand helped him garner other patrons.
As with all white American artists of the period, Cole hailed from a European cultural background, and he believed that it was important for him to delve into the works of the great masters of the Classical and Renaissance traditions in order to improve his own craft.
In the summer of 1829, he embarked on an extensive European tour. However, before departing for Europe, he went for a short trip to the Niagara Falls. According to Cole, he had to see the natural beauty of North America before his travels to Europe, so he would not forget them even after experiencing the sceneries of other countries.
At the time of the European tour, Thomas Cole had already become a respectable name in the world of art. People in his adopted country absolutely adored him. Poet William Cullen Bryant composed the poem ‘To Cole, The Painter, Departing for Europe’, in which he urged the painter to remember the beauty of the New World amidst the marvels of Europe.
His European visit was highly educational for him. He became acquainted with the likes of the English Romantic landscape painters John Constable and J M. W. Turner, as well as the portraitist Thomas Lawrence.
According to art historian Matthew Baigell, the composition of Cole’s ‘Course of Empire’ series was inspired by Turner's cityscapes. While he was in Europe, his works were displayed at a number of exhibitions.
After he came back from Europe in November 1832, his career as an artist experienced drastic changes. In 1833, he became acquainted with his future patron Luman Reed, for whom he painted the ‘Course of Empire’ series in 1836.
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In January 1836, he published ‘Essay on American Scenery’ in the ‘American Monthly Magazine.’ In the influential essay, he discussed the threat that the rapid industrialization posed to the natural world.
In the later years of his life, Thomas Cole was disturbed by the invasive progress of industrialization and urbanization that seemingly put the American wilderness in danger. He supposedly hated cities, believing there is, according to Baigell, “a presentiment of evil in them".
In his works, he still found new ways to explore all the facets of nature. Cole delved into issues like passages of time and history in his ‘Voyage of Life’ series (1842).
During this period, he was dealing with some health issues and thought that another European tour would be good for him. After he came back to New York, he became a member of the Episcopal Church. His religion subsequently began playing an important role in his life.
In 1844, he agreed to teach Frederic Edwin Church. This turned out to be a fortuitous decision, as, through Church, whose own work was greatly influenced by his master, Cole’s legacy was secured.
Family & Personal Life
In 1827, Thomas Cole acquired a studio at a farm called Cedar Grove, in the town of Catskill, New York. His wife, Maria Bartow, whom he married in 1836, was a niece of the owner. The couple had five children together, three daughters, Mary, Emily, and Elizabeth, and two sons, Thomas Jr and Theodore Alexander.
Death & Legacy
During the summer of 1847, Thomas Cole went to see the Niagara Falls once again. This became his final major travel, as he died not long after. On February 11, 1848, Cole passed away in Catskill at the age of 47. His funeral was organised at Saint Luke’s Church, and he was laid to rest in the family vault at Cedar Grove on 15 February. His remains were later exhumed and reinterred at the Thomson Street Cemetery.
At his funeral, Bryant said, “the paintings of Cole are of that nature that it hardly transcends the proper use of language to call them acts of religion." Although Romantic landscaping had already become a well-established tradition in Europe by the early 19th century, Cole has the distinction of being the first artist to interpret it in the North-American context.
Because of this, he can very well be considered as the father of Romantic painting in North America, as well as the progenitor of the Hudson River School. Cole’s influence is clear on the future artists who decided to become part of the Hudson River School, including Church, Durand, Albert Bierstadt, Jasper Cropsey, George Inness, John Kensett, and Thomas Moran.