An Essay on American Scenery by Thomas Cole

When Thomas Cole accepted Frederic Edwin Church as his only pupil in May 1844, Cole was twice the age of his student. Many differences separated these two artists that have been so compared over time. Thomas Cole came from a working class, British family, was self-trained in the arts, and worked assorted jobs such as wallpaper designer and theatrical stage scenery painter before being discovered by Asher B. Durand and John Trumbull.

In opposition, Frederic Edwin Church was born in Hartford, Connecticut to a prominent family, and wrote and was accepted to Cole’s artistic supervision at the age of eighteen. While Cole did not receive fame until his thirties, Frederic Edwin Church exhibited at the National Academy of Design at age nineteen. Although it may be true that Church probably would not have received this exalted attention and praise without the help of this American master, it is important to point out the simple but important differences between these two landscapists.

Thomas Cole sought a “higher sort of landscape” than mere representation. He brought the landscape traditions of Constable and Turner with him to the United States, and ignited a Romantic era that dominated the art of the thirties and forties. Cole’s art was filled with old world associations, extolling the values of wilderness, while warning against the coming of “the ravages of the axe” and the destruction of America’s “most venerable remains of American antiquity” . Raised with Calvinist ideals, Thomas Cole combined landscape and allegory to teach a moral lesson. Works such as The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, The Voyage of Life, and his unfinished series, The Cross and the World exemplify his religious views, his style, and his dedication to the teaching power of allegory.

During Church’s two years with Cole, he closely observed and studied the artist at work, sometimes taking an idea from Cole’s list of subjects to paint. At work with the premier American landscape painter of the time, it must have seemed beneficial at his early age to imitate the master. Church’s first work to be exhibited at the National Academy of Design, Twilight Among the Mountains (1845), bears a remarkable resemblance to Cole’s The Old Mill at Sunset (1844). Both of these circular canvases contain a river and tree scene at sunset, the only main difference between the two being Church’s repositioning of the tree. This imitation is repeated with Cole’s 1832-1836 work, Landscape with Ruined Tower. In 1846, Church paints a 9x13 work on millboard, entitled New England Landscape with ruined Chimney, replacing Cole’s vision of the ruins of Europe with the new ruins of American industry. Although Church imitated Cole in the most respectable way, by this time, Church was developing his own personal style. At this time, when Church was “most susceptible to influence from his master, he leaned more toward naturalism, emphasizing it for its own sake, than toward romanticism”

Thomas Cole died February 11, 1848 from pleurisy. Two months later, Frederic Edwin Church had finished his tribute to Cole, entitled To the Memory of Cole. It was on exhibit from May - September of 1848 in a memorial exhibit to Cole. In this memorial, Church paints a sunset over Catskill Mountain, the mountain that Cole so loved and painted. A cross centers of the composition, which is entangled with spring flowers. A river flows; a felled stump symbolizes Cole’s life cut short, and three trees on the right mark the trinity. A pyramid of clouds rises above the horizon, and is split into three separate layers. This pyramid points up towards heaven, assuring the audience and Church himself that Cole has gone to a better place. Church quotes Cole by depicting white, celebratory clouds at the top of the pyramid, while the darker clouds at the bottom reinforce Church’s feelings of grief. An interesting aspect of this image is the overlapping of seasons and time. The sunset symbolizes Cole’s departure from this earth while, simultaneously, a morning light is cast upon Cole’s grave marker. The season seems to be the end of autumn, turning to winter, but strangely the flowers bloom upon Cole’s grave. This interchanging of seasons and time of day can be read as a mixture of feelings that Church felt at this time, sad for the death of his friend and mentor, but proud of his achievements and sure that they will carry his name on forever.

After the memorial exhibit, Church returned to his work, finishing Above the Clouds at Sunset (1848). This work can be read as Church’s attempt to get over his grieving and start anew, and also as recreation.