Inside Thomas Cole’s Rise to Fame With the Hudson River School

“Tower by Moonlight,” Courtesy of Thomas Cole Historic Site

Prior to becoming one of the Hudson River School’s most acclaimed artists, Thomas Cole was a self-taught painter exploring the Valley.

In the spring of 1825, a 24-year-old English immigrant named Thomas Cole took a steamboat from New York City to the town of Catskill. The young man, who had been toiling in his father’s wallpaper manufacturing business, wanted to be an artist, so he moved to Manhattan to pursue his dreams. Mostly a self-taught painter, he was interested in landscapes and thought the Catskills and the Hudson River would be good spots to sketch.

When Cole returned to New York, he turned those drawings into three large oil paintings and convinced a local art seller to display them, hoping, as the New York Evening Post reported on November 22, 1825, “to obtain twenty dollars apiece for them.” A renowned artist named Colonel John Trumbull, who gained fame as a painter of the American Revolution, saw Cole’s work and was stunned.

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“Tower by Moonlight,” Courtesy of Thomas Cole Historic Site

“On casting his eyes upon one of the pictures by Mr. Cole, he exclaimed, ‘where did these come from!’ and continued gazing, almost incapable of understanding the answer,” the newspaper reported. Trumbull bought one—overpaying—and told the seller to keep the change. “What I now purchase for 25 dollars I would not part with for 25 guineas. I am delighted, and at the same time mortified. This youth has done at once, and without instruction, what I can not [sic] do after fifty years of practice,” he said.

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According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “What Trumbull recognized in the work of the young painter was the perception of wildness inherent in American scenery that landscape artists had theretofore ignored.” Cole had channeled the unique, purely American literary movement of transcendentalism—and its reverence for nature—into images of the Hudson Valley. As the Thomas Cole Historic Site explains, “His vision of wild and untouched scenery with majestic mountains and tangled forests stood in stark contrast to the gentle landscape images that had come before.”

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Portrait of Thomas Cole by Asher B. Durand, Courtesy the Google Art Project

Trumbull told two of his fellow artists, William Dunlap and Asher B. Durand, about his discovery. They spread the word about this new and exciting talent, and Cole quickly entered the realm of New York’s cultural elite, which included William Cullen Bryant and James Fenimore Cooper.

In 1825, Cole and other New York City-based artists who were members of the American Academy of Fine Arts, including Samuel Morse, Asher Durand and others, formed a new academy, the National Academy of Design, an honorary association dedicated to promoting fine arts in the United States. Cole’s fame—and wealth—grew over the years, and by 1829, he could afford to take a Grand Tour of Europe (a “rite of passage” trip for upper-class men), which inspired many of his later works. He also bought the house on the river in Catskill that is now the Thomas Cole Museum, and continued to paint Hudson Valley scenes until his death from pleurisy in 1848. Bryant, at a memorial service, said “much is taken away from the charms of Nature when such a man departs” but predicted that Cole “will be reverenced in future years as a great master in art.”

More than that, Cole is acknowledged as the father of this country’s first great art movement, the Hudson River School. This was “neither a school nor art movement in the contemporary sense of the term, but a group of landscape painters who began working in the Hudson River Valley of New York State,” according to the Art Story Foundation. “The name … was coined as a disparaging term in the 1870s to suggest that the group’s style and subject matter were passé and provincial.”

Art critics can be rough. During its brief heyday, though, a number of the Hudson River School painters followed Cole and are now beloved for having created the first homegrown, internationally acclaimed art movement. They included Cole’s across-the-river neighbor Fredrick E. Church, who built his estate, Olana, on a hill overlooking his mentor’s humbler, but now National Historic Landmark, home.

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