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Thomas Cole

Why does Cole think it is important to observe and paint American scenery? How does he think nature and humans should interact? How does one painting depict (or fail to depict) the ideals he discusses in his essay?

9 Responses to “Thomas Cole”

  1. Emily Cavanagh says:

    As others have noted, Cole places much emphasis on the exceptionalism of the untouched American landscape, where one can witness “the sublime melting into the beautiful.” He praises the deeply emotional and spiritual connection that such scenery encourages, for it is not symbolic of man’s history, but of a solely divinely altered past. Interestingly, far from encouraging the preservation of this unadulterated landscape, Cole states that the “cultivated state of our western world is fast approaching,” without suggestion of a call to action to prevent it. In this way, Cole’s Course of Empire paintings seem to suggest a necessary path dependency of the building of civilization that America will soon follow. He does not however, see the ruin of such as inevitable. While Cole’s hope for the future does not appear to be in natural preservation, he instead seeks to build American “historical and legendary associations” through newly manipulated landscape that are marked not by destruction or desolation, as Europe has been, but instead by “peace, security and happiness.”

  2. John Louie says:

    Thomas Cole makes many points about why American scenery should be recorded. His opening point about the American landscape is that the land belongs to everyone. No matter if you are looking on the river or in the mountains, the American Landscape is the land of Americans. Cole writes, “For wether he beholds the Hudson mingling waters with the Atlantic – explores the central wilds of this vast continent, or stands on the margin of the distant Oregon, he is still in the midst of American scenery – it is his own land” (98). The beauty and magnificence of the land belongs to the American people, and they should embrace it. Cole does not discredit the beauty of European lands, he simply acknowledges that the two sceneries are different. The lands of Europe lack the primitiveness and untouched forests and landscapes, whereas American scenery remains untouched. I especially like when Cole mentions the “one season when the American forest surpasses all the world in gorgeousness – that is the autumnal; then every hill and dale is riant in the luxury of color”. Cole is admirable about the landscape and highlights many points about the value of the American landscape in art. The painting “Daniel Boone and His Cabin”, depicts Cole’s exact thoughts about the American Landscape. Boone is sitting at his home and behind him is a vast and unexplored landscape of grand mountains and deep waters. This type of scene would not exist in Europe anymore.

  3. Bailey Marshall says:

    Thomas Cole views American scenery as a source of joy and consolation. He writes of the tranquility, peace and transparency of water as well as other beautifiers of the earth including the forest scenery, hills, and sky. He challenges those that view American scenery as inferior to European scenery by asserting that it has magnificent features no longer present in Europe. He writes that features such as “extensive forests, felled-rugged mountains, tangled wood, and turbulent brooks” – features abundant in American scenery – no longer exist in Europe due its “cultivated state”and consequently take away from its magnificence (102). Cole believes that humans should view nature as an “escape from the ordinary pursuits of life” and as a place for emotional reflection and enjoyment (109).

  4. Adam Kelley says:

    I disagree with the general assertion of the previous comments that Cole believes Americans should consider the wild landscape greater than themselves, and work to preserve it just for its own sake. In my view, Cole’s primary appreciation of wilderness is for its impact on the American consciousness, and the way in which interaction with one’s environment can lead to the formation of a new national ethic. This ethic, embodied by frontier men like Daniel Boone, is what serves to radically distinguish America from its European roots, providing the seed of the concept of “American exceptionalism” (“the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other nation states” –Wikipedia) that is still ubiquitous in American politics and culture.

    Though European observers may look view American scenery as “less fashionable and unframed” (101), they overlook the land’s “unbounded capacity for improvement by art” (106). These artificial improvements are desirable because they will be a reflection of the people that will carve out a new nation in the wilderness. One of the huge differences between European and American landscapes is the “want of associations” (108) that stems from America’s comparatively short history as a “civilized nation.” Cole may believe nature can be sublime on its own, but he also writes that “he who stands on the mounds of the West…may experience the emotion of the sublime, but it is the sublimity of the shoreless ocean un-islanded by the recorded deeds of man” (ibid.). Already, Cole looks for ways in which the landscape has been “sanctified,” or made more meaningful by some important human deed, and he finds ample sanctification in the memory of the Revolution, which also goes hand-in-hand with the notion of exceptionalism. One might argue that Cole decries artificial corruption of the wilderness when he laments the “ravages of the axe” (109), but as the painter himself notes, “this is a regret rather than a complaint” (ibid.), because such actions are necessary for the advance of society. He hopes that nature’s beauty is not mindlessly destroyed and left desolate, but rather artfully cultivated in the name of taste. While it is arguable that Cole would like to see large tracts of land preserved for the sake of their aesthetic/spiritual beauty, he gives at least equal weight to the wilderness as blank canvas that will inspire the unfolding drama of American nationhood.

  5. Max Greenwald says:

    Cole thinks it is important to observe and paint American scenery, rural nature, because one becomes awakened to the deeper feeling of the works of God and the beauty of one’s existence in America. Cole believes that the observation of scenery is a source of delight and improvement for man. He believes that while looking upon the work of God, one “feels a calm religious tone seal through his mind, and when he has turned to mingle with his fellow men, the chords have been struck in that sweet communion cease not to vibrate” (100). Also, Cole speaks to those with a prejudice of pro-European scenery from reading. This is another reason why Cole believes in the power of observing scenery. He believes that these ignorant people have never had their eyes opened to the beauties of God’s creation, and they have not found pleasure in the beauty of rural earth before the beauty faded from the sight and was closed forever.

  6. Leah Lavigne says:

    The exceptionalism of American nature, Cole believes, is its wilderness, which though approaching levels of English civilization still possesses a distance from humankind’s touch that allows for more significant spiritual and emotional reflection. Citing widespread forests, crystalline rivers and majestic mountains which implicitly invoke the wonder of God’s creation to the viewer, Cole notes every American’s birthright and duty to revel in their unique landscape. Perception of American nature through poetry and painting creates an “intellectual enjoyment,” “deeper feeling,” and “keener perception” of the world for the viewer, and Cole warns against the distractions of utilitarianism and increasingly popular man made creations like fashion, arguing that the simple contemplation of scenery delights and improves the mind in a way that extends to every facet of life, therefore improving the benevolence of men and the conditions of society. Painting, then, is a method of preserving this American wilderness and allowing future generations to experience the spiritual and emotional benefits of viewing a natural world which Cole knows may change rapidly over time. The future road to refinement, Cole believes, is paved with “improvements” that will forever alter the current landscape of the wilderness. In a painting like Home in the Woods, Cole immortalizes an unrippled lake in which “the reflections of surrounding objects, trees, mountains, sky, are most perfect in the clearest water,” also featuring a lush American forest and formidable mountain range in the background. Most importantly, Cole paints a modest cabin and family living in harmony with the natural splendor, perhaps suggesting to the viewer that this lifestyle – not that of the wealthy or most ‘civilized’ – will most easily lead to enlightenment and social peace.

  7. Tyler Wood says:

    Cole believes it is important to paint American scenery because he views it as importantly distinct from European landscape and that it offers a glimpse of the human condition compared to the vastness of everything else created by God’s hand. He proposes that being alone in nature, especially the untamed, magnificent, and ‘sublime’ landscape of the (at the time) significantly less developed American wilderness can equate to a kind of religious experience. He asserts that experiencing and comprehending the immense and diverse aspects of beauty that characterize American scenery is an important step for those with “unobserving eyes” and “unaffected hearts” to actually deserve a place surrounded by such overwhelmingly awe-inspiring sights. He cherishes the fact that American landscapes have not been tamed and developed to the extent of European land, insinuating that humans should work to preserve in some way the natural sublimity of the American wilderness. However he also notes the pleasant character of cultivated landscapes as well, revealing a complexity about his attitude regarding tamed versus untamed land. The first two paintings of his Course of Empire aptly represent how Cole renders nature’s beauty in depictions of both wilderness and pastoral lands.

  8. Allyson Boyd says:

    Cole has a very spiritual relationship with nature. Cole said that, “the wilderness is yet a fitting place to speak of God.” Observing and painting American scenery is so important to Cole because he believes that American scenery is an illimitable subject and that Americans are undeserving of it if they do not worship it (painting is very spiritual/a form of worship to Cole).

  9. Stevie Durocher says:

    Thomas Cole sees American scenery as something to be revered with the upmost respect. He worries that people take for granted the earth and its beauty. It is most beautiful when it runs wild, unimpeded by the human race. He discusses the mountains, the waterways, and the forests. While some say it lacks the picturesque qualities of the European landscape, Thomas Cole believes it holds beauties, the likes of which even Europe does not have.
    Thomas Cole uses the earth and its beauty almost as though it is a metaphor for the people who inhabit it. Although many think it is not attractive in the ways of Europe, he believes its diversity makes it special in ways Europe could never be. From the wilderness to the more cultivated grounds, American scenery finds its greatest appeal in the many ways in which it represents itself.
    In his painting, “Daniel Boone and His Cabin,” Cole depicts his beliefs in summation. With the heavens shining down warm light from above and the mountains, woods, and lake all melding into one glorious scene, man sits to appreciate the splendor around him. Man does not wish to destroy the majesty, only to become part of it, part of the greater beauty.

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