( Originally Published 1955 )
This most famous member of the Hudson River school was born in Lancashire, England, and worked as a textile designer and an engraver before he migrated to the U.S. with his family in 1818. In this country he first studied wood engraving, taught drawing and painting in his sister's school, designed wallpaper, and then became an itinerant portrait painter. In 1823 he entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and in 1825 moved to New York where his landscapes immediately aroused the enthusiasm of Trumbull, Durand, and Dunlap. In 1826 he was established in a studio in Catskill, N.Y., and was the recognized leader of the American Romantic landscapists, painting along the Hudson River, in the White Mountains (1828), and in Europe (1829-31 and 1841-42). Cole belongs to the general tradition of early nineteenth-century Romanticism. He was a close friend of the poet William Cullen Bryant and like him tried to express the magnificence of the American primordial landscape. His early work tends toward the meticulous and rather prissy realism of the Hudson River school, but he soon developed into a broader and bolder romanticism which led to sheer fantasy and finally religious moralism. His art appears to have been influenced in its more lyrical aspects by Claude and Poussin, in its more wildly romantic moments by Salvator Rosa, and in its moments of mad grandeur by Turner. Such paintings as the five panels composing the series Course of Empire, commissioned by Luman Reed and now in the New York Historical Society, which were the products of a fanatically moralistic approach, are today again in favor for what appear to be their Surrealist qualities.