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Thomas Cole and the Decorative Arts

Thomas Cole, A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains, 1839. Oil on canvas, 40 -3/16” x 61 -5/16”. (Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art / Andrew W. Mellon Fund)

[clock] 28-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 2014
Thomas Cole is celebrated as a self-​made, self-​taught artist who never painted a picture before emigrating from England in 1818 and discovering the glorious American wilderness. But an enduring mystery surrounds his artistry.

At Cedar Grove, the Catskill, New York, home of the painter Thomas Cole, his studio brims with stories. Brushes, palettes, and a mammoth studio easel recall the way America’s first great landscape painter went about his artistic business. He painted fast, standing up, first under-​painting in burnt sienna, then applying successive layers of color onto the stretched canvas propped on the easel. Cole (1801–1848) captured both wild and pastoral landscape—​especially the Hudson River Valley and Catskill Mountains. He also painted visionary works couched in scenery, such as his famed The Voyage of Life, a four-​panel allegory in which figures representing childhood, youth, manhood, and old age float down the river of life.  

Cole inspired a group of talented artists considered to be America’s first native art movement, the Hudson River school. He’s celebrated as a self-​made, self-​taught artist who never painted a picture before emigrating from England in 1818 and discovering the glorious American wilderness. An enduring mystery surrounds his artistry. He had devoted himself to painting for only a couple of years before his extraordinary landscapes burst upon the New York art scene in 1825. Just how an apparently untrained artist came to create work of such power so quickly is baffling: His personal history simply doesn’t add up. While researching his studio’s contents, I was astonished to stumble upon a massive clue to the mystery, hidden in plain sight: a well-​worn folding chair.

Cole’s painting chair from his studio in Catskill, New York. (Courtesy of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site)

This humble piece of seating furniture looks like a modern director’s chair. The seat and back, made of a needlepoint-​like textile, have an odd stylized design of white flat-​topped pyramids and scarlet birds of paradise on a golden ground. It’s an incongruously decorative chair to find in a workspace—​and an unusually personal one. 

This chair obviously knew Cole well. The seat sags poignantly like a pair of shoes left behind by a dead man. The back, still taut, reveals that Cole sat upright—​or leaned forward—​to see close at hand the many poems, letters, and essays he wrote, or the foreground details he painted so carefully. This was a studio chair, far too heavy and ungainly to be lugged along on sketching trips. 

While its uses recall Cole’s day-​to-​day labors, the chair’s quirky appearance sheds light on his seemingly precocious artistic development. In the process, Cole’s studio chair also raises fascinating questions about why his artistry’s true backstory has remained hidden for so long. 

Today, Cole’s large originals are valued in the millions, and The Voyage of Life can be bought online as either framed giclée reproductions or a four-​piece set of refrigerator magnets. Despite such exploitive commercialism, confronting an actual Cole painting remains a visceral experience. Ground falls away below the viewer’s gaze, collapsing into a heart-​plunging abyss, or thrusts upward in primeval chunks and slabs. Sunlight drops like a veil over water and woods. Cole channels the spirit of American wilderness. 

The paintings—​and their creator’s apparent lack of training—​astonished the public and artists alike. Renowned portraitist and historical painter John Trumbull (1756–1843) exclaimed, “You surprise me, at your age, to paint like this. You have already done what I, with all my years and experience, am yet unable to do.” Cole’s peers explained his untrained artistry as, in the words of poet and New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant, “great genius.” 

Belief in genius was in the air. This was the age of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Sir Walter Scott—​an age of Romantic writers, musicians, philosophers, and artists for whom instinct, sensation, inspiration, and direct experience trumped book learning. To this day, historians and art lovers still peg Cole as a genius without a past, who found sublime landscape and painting in the New World and instantly made both his own. 

How did he do it? If Cole’s painting paraphernalia is silent on this point, one quirky object in his studio chats away, if we’ll only listen: that chair.

Whatever Cole did in the chair, whether writing or sketching or reading, he did so often that he wore the chair out. A telltale dotted line of nail holes runs parallel to the nails securing the seat and back. I would bet that Cole swapped out the seat and back sometime after 1836. At the end of that year, the already successful artist married Maria Bartow at Cedar Grove, where she lived with its owner—​her uncle, J. Alexander Thomson—​and her three sisters. 

Her uncle offered the newly-weds a suite of three rooms on the house’s second floor and a jumble of family furniture. He generously donated his still plush, but outdated, parlor carpet to the couple’s bedroom and bought a new one, a tasteful looped-​pile Brussels design with a red figure that complemented the room’s color scheme. Like all pile carpets at the time, it shipped from England in strips, which were sewn together in Catskill and fitted wall to wall. In all likelihood, Thomson’s new carpet had an exotic design of creamy pyramids and bright red birds of paradise. Some bits would have been left after the installation. Cole—​handy with tools—​improvised his chair’s new back and seat by nailing two scraps of what is clearly a circa-​1830s Brussels carpet to its wooden frame.

Of the various carpets with remnants stashed at Cedar Grove, he chose this design. Its motifs had appealing associations. The flat-​topped stepped pyramid recalled a symbol used by the secret brotherhood of Freemasonry, of which Cole was a member. The exotic bird of paradise had become a popular symbol of the immortal soul: Having seen only stuffed specimens that lacked feet, Westerners believed that the bird spent its entire life in the air, drinking dew and flying about in the ether. 

As a design historian, I am struck by the care with which Cole positioned the pattern—​right-​side-up and tastefully centered on the chair. That he was so attentive to something he would sit on, amid the clutter of his painting room, tells us that he treasured the design, rather than just the individual motifs. The chair whispers what his utilitarian painting kit cannot: Patterns featuring birds and ruins came from a world little known to Cole’s American contemporaries and ignored by art historians and the public today. Such designs appeared on eighteenth-​ and nineteenth-​century cotton fabrics made in Lancashire, the heavily industrial epicenter of British textile production and printing—​and the birthplace of Cole.

Asher B. Durand, <i>Portrait of Thomas Cole</i>, 1837. Oil on canvas, 30 -5/8” x 25 -5/8”. (Courtesy of the Berkshire Museum. Gift of Zenas Crane.)

Cole was born in 1801 in Bolton-​le-​Moors to parents whose income came from manufacturing muslin, a lightweight cotton cloth. Instead of studying law, as his father, James, had hoped, young Thomas insisted upon being apprenticed to a printer in Chorley, Lancashire, who produced calicoes—​substantial cotton fabrics printed with colorful designs. When glazed with a shiny dust-​resistant coating, calicoes were called chintzes. Both fabrics were made up into garments, slipcovers, curtains, and bedcoverings. 

Cole’s taste for calico-​like upholstery made me curious: Why had the future great landscape painter wanted to work in a cotton-​printing factory? A nineteenth-​century calico printworks, with its toxic chemicals, clattering machinery, and industrial stench, was no garden spot.

On the other hand, the cotton-​printing trade offered excellent pay and opportunities, as The Book of English Trades, and Library of the Useful Arts (1818) explains:

Calico-​printing is reckoned a very good business both for the master and his journey-man. [The master] employs three sorts of hands; the pattern-​drawer, the cutters of the types, who are also the operators in printing, and a number of labourers to assist in washing. The pattern-​drawer is paid according to the variety and value of the designs; and the printer, who is able also to cut with ability and taste, can, in the summer months, earn four or five guineas a week or more.

Printers applied each color of a given design separately, one after the other, using a different woodblock or copperplate for each color. Some patterns included both kinds of printing. Engravers—​known as “cutters”—​carved the woodblocks and etched the copperplates.

As a trade, cotton-​engraving had special cache because it required artistic talent. The Book of English Trades, and Library of the Useful Arts warned that “a youth designed for this business ought to have a genius for drawing, a good eye, and a delicate hand.” Cole, it turns out, had already taken a precocious interest in decorative and decorated materials. He later recalled: “My school opportunities were very small; reading and music were among my recreations, but drawing occupied most of my leisure hours. My first attempts were made from cups and saucers, from them, I rose to copying prints, from copying prints to making originals.”

These recollections are nothing short of amazing. Not only did the great artist begin his career in a factory, but he also began drawing in England, years before arriving in America. And he was first inspired not by the sublime American landscape, but by the little landscapes that decorated cups and saucers. 

Why have we not known this? Cole never concealed any of it. He told one biographer that, by the end of his apprenticeship, he had “made some proficiency in drawing, and had engraved a little both in wood and copper.” In other words, he had learned “cutting” (engraving). Moreover, Cole went on to explain that he had progressed from “copying prints to making originals.” 

Histories of the industry note that, before copyright protections, many “pattern-​drawers”—​designers—​simply copied competitors’ patterns. When Cole said he copied prints, he wasn’t referring to printing illustrations on paper. He was describing his work at the factory. He first copied other people’s designs and later advanced to creating his own. In short, the allegedly unschooled genius had trained formally as a designer. 


Could calico-​printing have taught him skills for painting landscape? Following the bread-​crumbs led me to cottons printed circa 1810–1820 that survive in museum collections and then to “cartoons,” the drawings that pattern-​drawers made for engravers to follow. Even a quick review shows just how much a young designer could take away.

Calicoes featured vivid colors, which pattern-​drawers selected and combined. Like painters, they also made hues or tints by layering one over another. Yellow over blue produced green. Layers of the same color—​red over red, or purple over purple—​created many tones of a single color, designs known today as toiles or toiles de Jouy, after the French town famous for them. 

A wholecloth quilt made of English calico features the combination of birds and exotic motifs popular during Cole’s apprenticeship in the cotton industry and reflected in the carpet pattern he chose for his studio chair.  Bannister Hall printworks in Lancashire first produced the block-printed design by Charles Swainson circa 1815. (Courtesy of the Winterthur Museum. Gift of Henry Frances Dupont, 152.0250.002.)

Supposedly, Cole learned to handle colors solely by reading a single book borrowed from a painter named Stein, whom he met in Steubenville, Ohio. Yet, even if Cole had never painted before arriving in America, he had worked for years with colors and with harmony and contrast, juxtaposing and layering colors to create effects. Cole did meet Stein (whose first name is shrouded in mystery) and did borrow a treatise on painting, but the speed with which he took to painting after reading one book strongly suggests that it built on what he already knew. 

Did Cole handle color differently because he had trained in a British printworks? Perhaps.Lancashire calicoes used brilliant details—​bright blues or reds or white—​to make colors pop. These picante accents mattered so much that female employees laboriously brushed them on by hand. Even Cole’s early paintings include signature jolts of red that draw the viewer’s eye through the picture. Experts use this strategy to help authenticate works attributed to him.

Cole’s use of color aroused comment at the time. In an 1848 eulogy, on the mournful occasion of Cole’s unexpected death, Bryant acknowledged that the departed’s color combinations struck some viewers as awkward and peculiar:

One of the very peculiarities which has been objected to him as a fault, a certain crudeness, as it has been called, in the coloring, appears to me a proof of his exquisite art. He did not paint for this year or for the next, but for centuries to come; his tints were so chosen and applied that he knew they would be harmonized by time, and already in several of his paintings that hoary artist has nearly completed the work which the painter left him to do.

Lancashire calicoes were famous for their brilliant, even gaudy, colors. A past history with splashy cotton prints may have been to blame for the complaints. And Bryant’s defense—​that Cole knew just how his colors would settle in—​wasn’t preposterous: Pattern-​drawers knew perfectly well what happened to dyes over time. Reds, for example, “came down” gradually, eventually degrading to brown. 

Cartoons reveal that Cole’s drawing, so vital to painting, owed even more to his apprenticeship. A calico design’s outlines printed separately from its colors. To create a cartoon, a pattern-​drawer first drew a new pattern as edges only, and then as it would look with detail, shading, and so forth. 

If the technique sounds familiar, it is. Tracing a subject’s edges—​contour drawing—​has been a favorite technique of painters at least since Leonardo da Vinci. And it’s brilliant for sketching. A practiced hand and eye can capture a subject’s shape, proportion, and mass almost instantly. When I examined some of Cole’s many drawings, even early sketches turned out to be contour drawings, proof that the former apprentice brought the technique with him to America. Skills honed in a crowded and noisy British factory proved perfect for sketching in the American wild.

These drawings attracted notice. Bryant marveled, “His sketches were sometimes but the slightest notes of his subject, often unintelligible to others, but to him luminous remembrances from which he would afterwards reconstruct the landscape with surprising fidelity. He carried to his painting room the impressions received by the eye and there gave them to the canvas …” Actually, Cole’s sketches told him everything. For one trained to think in contours, a landscape’s outlines captured the landscape totally. 

Designs that would be printed had to stick to the essentials, to get the look the pattern-​drawer wanted with the fewest woodblocks or copperplates, every one of which added cost. Calico designs didn’t spell out every detail. A printed bird of paradise created the effect of a bird of paradise, rather than a precise copy. Pattern-​drawers counted on the viewer’s mind and eye, which filled in the rest. 


Though Cole abandoned calico-​printing in America (where the industry had barely begun), he worked in a dizzying array of decorative arts that created similar effects. I followed his trail. In Steubenville, the young designer assisted his father in a wallpaper factory, printing papers with woodblocks and distemper, a water-​and-​glue-​based paint much like the gouache used to color calico cartoons. Wallpaper in the 1820s was all about effect. Popular designs simulated printed silks, drapery, paneling, plaster ornaments, masonry, and architectural cornices.

When the wallpaper business failed, Cole joined his family in Pittsburgh and helped his father manufacture floor cloth, a sturdy floor covering—​typically block-​printed—​that simulated other materials, such as Brussels carpet, straw matting, wood, stone, tile, or terrazzo. This waterproof product consisted of canvas coated with many layers of linseed-​oil paint, each buffed in turn, and then topcoated with resin and given a final polishing. Cole designed the factory’s patterns and mixed its oil colors. 

And he frequently worked as a decorative painter in various industries. He painted window shades, probably with the trompe l’oeil scenic views so popular for covering windows. He decorated “fancy” furniture, which combined stenciled motifs, wood graining, fruits, flowers, leaves, classical motifs, and miniature landscapes. Even as he tried to jump-​start his painting career, he supported himself by ornamenting ordinary household objects, including bellows and brushes, with figures, landscapes, and natural motifs.

Cole, <i>On the Road from Conway</i>, 1827/1828. Pen and black ink over graphite on wove paper, 7 -13/16” x 13 -13/16””. (Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art / John Davis Hatch Collection)

These exploits are hardly news, since Cole told his earliest biographers about them. What is surprising is just how neatly the techniques Cole learned as a designer and decorator dovetailed with new, modern ideas about painting. The Romantic Movement had nothing to do with romance, but everything to do with sensation and experience. Its advocates insisted that art should suggest, rather than duplicate, the natural world. Like a printed fabric or wallpaper or floor cloth, a painted landscape should provoke the sensations that the natural landscape inspired, rather than slavishly copying its details. 

In order to provide viewers with actual experience, paintings had to leave something to the imagination. Perhaps Cole did have a photographic memory for scenery—​given those skimpy sketches—​but he took practical steps to avoid depicting precisely what he had seen. He turned drawings into paintings only after time had elapsed—​and only back in the studio, never on the spot. He worked from both sketches and lengthy poetic descriptions, not of the landscape, but of the sensations it had stirred. In other words, he conveyed the experience of what he had seen, or imagined, by deliberately forgetting the details.

Of course, Cole could have gotten these ideas about art from culture, rather than craft. Certainly Romanticism was in the air, and Cole loved its writers—​William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, James Fenimore Cooper—​who were all for intuition, instinct, emotion, and effect. His wife read them to him while he worked. He painted scenes inspired by Byron’s Manfred and Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. On the other hand, he had already learned to suggest nature as a young designer. Romanticism’s ideas about art and landscape gave his skill set—​acquired in industry—​wider application, greater dignity, and moral heft. 

And, thanks to his work with calico and wallpaper, Cole had plenty of experience with landscapes that were more than mere views. While the wealthy bought paintings and panoramic (scenic) wallpapers, the mass market snapped up so-​called “landscape figures,” affordable repeating designs printed on wallpaper and cotton. Each motif in a landscape figure offers a cluster of human forms or a little snippet of scenery, nearly always framed with trees or plants. Within a motif, a distant focal point—​a lake, waterfall, water feature, or ruin—​creates a vista.

Each little scene nudges the viewer to remember a story it illustrates. Wallpapers and calicoes recall important events (the death of Admiral Nelson, the American Revolution); well-​known tales (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Aesop’s fables); or common activities (children’s games, country pastimes). One clever French fabric records the industrial processes used to print cotton. Every landscape-figure design tells a story.

In America, Cole often earned money by decorating so- called “fancy” chairs and other furnishings. Such ornamentation frequently included miniature landscapes like this one, painted on a side chair by an unknown artist, circa 1815–1825. (Courtesy of the Winterthur Museum. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont, 1957.1075.1.)

On a hunch, I stripped some of Cole’s early paintings to a single color, as if they were toiles, with the help of Adobe Photoshop. Pictures such as Hunters in a Landscape and View of Fort Putnam contain little scenes framed by trees, with distant focal points. Framing a view within a larger landscape, as if it were a vignette within a landscape figure, trains attention on the bracketed bit and engages the imagination: The viewer finds a story in the landscape. As a result, American wilderness, as Cole presents it, feels like a world of possibility, where stories unfold and meanings arise.

Cole believed that his vocation lay in painting scenes that evoked story, symbol, sensation, and action—​the rise and fall of civilization, the stages of life, the garden of Eden, the transfiguring power of a mountain sunrise. Kudos for depicting landscape, in general, or for recording particular landscapes, made him cross. He shuddered at patrons who clamored for mere scenery. One particularly dispiriting client, the prominent architect Ithiel Town, flat-​out refused the masterpiece that Cole had created for him—​The Architect’s Dream—​demanding scenery instead.

The problem Cole had with this sort of painting wasn’t that it was decorative, but that it wasn’t proper decoration at all. In 1831, during the first of two European tours, he visited Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Paestum with fellow artist Francis Alexander. Though he sketched and painted ruins set amidst Italian scenery, he also took in rooms decorated with frescoes, pictorial mosaics, and trompe l’oeil ornament. The experience must have been a revelation. 

Here are the ancestors of the landscape figures Cole knew so well—​ancient rooms painted with freeze-​frame scenes from myths, Roman history, and daily life. Some paintings, punctuated by trompe l’oeil architectural elements, cover entire walls. Smaller images sport painted frames. Scenes build upon each other like vignettes in a landscape figure, or panels in a comic strip. Roman rooms surrounded inhabitants with art. They stirred memory and imagination and created experience. 

Cotton fabrics printed with landscape figures offered Cole strategies for composing paintings that do more than simply depict scenery. This block-printed chintz design by John Bury, printed in Lancashire, England circa 1806–1807, celebrates the heroism of Admiral Horatio Nelson. (Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum, t.98-1959)

In 1833, a commission from businessman and art collector Luman Reed allowed Cole to build on what he had seen in Italy. He proposed a modern riff on the Roman frescoed room—​a flabbergasting twenty-​eight to thirty paintings to be hung as precisely and meaningfully as a roomful of Roman frescoes. As illustration, he sketched a wall decorated with ten of the potential canvases, five large and five small. Though Reed owned one of Cole’s Italian scenes, which the artist may have taken as enthusiasm for things Roman, in the end, Cole painted just five pictures, the masterwork he called The Course of Empire.

Everything in Cole’s decorative-​arts experience and in the frescoed rooms he saw told him that integrating paintings into three-​dimensional experience gave them maximum impact. Early changes that he made to The Voyage of Life, painted for Samuel Ward between 1839 and 1840, indicate that he again meant to create a room. In examining Cole’s initial drawings, art historian Elwood Parry discovered changes to the original direction of the stream in two of the four panels, which allowed the canvases to hang in pairs on two opposing walls, rather than on a single wall. Parry concluded that “the original scheme, as a dramatic journey in one direction, was scrapped in favor of an arrangement that would dominate the entire room, and not just one of the walls.”

Given his training, his experience, and his belief in the power released by mixing art with decoration, Cole embraced his inner decorator. He eagerly painted scenes on door panels in Reed’s house, a project in which several artists participated. When severe weather in January 1836 kept him home, he fretted, with emphasis, that “Mr. Durand and Mr. Flagg will have finished their doors before I get down. Keep one for me if you can. I intend to come down pretty soon if the snow keeps on the ground.” Still marooned in Catskill in early February, he wrote Reed that “I shall be sorry … not to have a little share in the door painting.” The weather improved, and Cole satisfied his hankering to undertake the decorative work, three panels of which survive. 

As decoration, pictures had their proper imaginative, edifying, and uplifting effect. He hung his paintings, some available for sale, on Cedar Grove’s walls, apparently with Thomson’s blessing and the complicity of the extended family. 

Cole naturally took an interest in Cedar Grove’s decoration. He installed Angels Ministering to Christ in the Wilderness as the permanent centerpiece of the formal west parlor. To make this large canvas fit the chimney-​breast like a fresco, Cole removed the painting from its stretcher, cut it down, and then re-​stretched and framed it.

A trail of evidence suggests that Cole worked on Cedar Grove’s entry hall, off and on, for several years. On September 4, 1841, Thomson purchased bottle-​green, black, and “dusk Color” (presumably dark bluish gray) paints, which have not been found on the house’s interior or exterior surfaces, from P. Breasted & Son in Catskill. He also bought abrasives of two different grits—​rotten stone and Bath brick—​apparently intending to polish between coats of paint and buff a topcoat. All signs point to a floor cloth. 

Since Breasted didn’t provide labor with the paints, Cole may either have made it himself or designed it and directed someone else’s work. Regardless of who did the actual painting, his expertise made for a handsome custom floor covering at a bargain price. When Thomson died in 1846, his possessions included a valuable, nearly new floor cloth in the entry hall. In 1844, Cole selected and purchased a new stair carpet in New York City as a companion for the floor cloth. 

By this point, the hall’s wallpaper had been scraped off, and the plaster painted in a light, bright blue distemper made with synthetic aquamarine. Though, in the 1840s, synthetic ultramarine walls were rare and cutting edge, Cole knew all about the pigment, which was first manufactured in France in 1828, just before his first visit. The synthetic gave the look of precious natural ultramarine, made from lapis lazuli, at a fraction of its cost. 

For Cole, the discovery was huge, offering as it did a color perfect for painting sky at a deeply discounted price. By 1833, New York City’s art-​supply houses stocked the new pigment, and he was using it. In 1837, a critic praised his pioneering use of the synthetic color: “We are strongly of the opinion that Mr. Cole has made a good and liberal use of ultramarine in his sky—​a color the excellencies of which are not sufficiently appreciated by our artists.” Whether he mixed the hall’s distemper or simply provided a color standard for painters to follow, odds are that he helped create the expanse of celestial blue that wound from Cedar Grove’s front door to its attic. 

Clearly, Cole was a decorative artist first, and he remained a decorative artist to the end. As a young child, he showed exceptional talent and artistic inclinations; as an apprentice, he learned and practiced artistic skills for six or seven years. He was a poster child for the so-​called “10,000 Hour Rule,” proposed by Anders Ericsson and promoted by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers—​the notion that an apparent prodigy has, in fact, practiced a skill for at least 10,000 hours. Sheer talent, the theory goes, is not enough: Many talented individuals never achieve extraordinary results. Cole’s exceptional gifts produced exceptional art because he practiced. By the time he began to paint in earnest, his apprenticeship and his work in British and American factories together spanned roughly twelve years. 

Cole’s studio at his home in Catskill, New York. (Courtesy of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site)

He then became a practicing artist, in more ways than one, as his voluminous sketchbooks attest. A drawing by Cole’s famous student, Frederic E. Church, catches him at work in the open air: a slim, top-​hatted figure, perched on a folding camp stool far lighter and more portable than his studio chair. Intent and adroit, he rests a sketchpad on effortlessly folded legs, sheathed in fashionable slim trousers. He delicately toggles a pencil between thumb and forefinger, in the deft gesture of a skilled draftsman. The sketch captures the sheer ease of a man doing something he has practiced for years. 

Yet, somehow, the myth of the unschooled genius who recorded and celebrated American landscape remains robust. I can see how it began. The first paintings Cole sold in New York appeared just forty-​two years after the Treaty of Paris ended the American War of Independence. Neither the treaty nor the Constitution that followed it established just what made some barely united states a distinctive nation. Worse yet, the new country had no definitive American language. Its citizens spoke a babel of languages and shared English with England. 

By the 1830s—​as Cole painted some of his best work, moved to Cedar Grove, and reupholstered his studio chair—​defensiveness on the subject had become a national tic. Unsurprisingly, given the country’s recent history, being different from England became its default identity. In her 1832 bestseller Domestic Manners of the Americans,Frances Trollope ridiculed the annoying national habit of disparaging everything English: Boorish Americans banged on about their classless society, so superior to hidebound and fusty England. Cole’s peers had little interest in either his origins or the niceties of the English trade-​education system. 

And they had much to gain from ignoring these undesirable biographical details. Even Trollope agreed with the Americans on one salient point: If the United States lacked the manners and niceties of England, the country possessed extraordinary landscape. If scenery was indeed as valuable and uplifting as its Romantic proponents claimed, America was rich and morally superior. Landscape paintings by Cole and other Hudson River school artists depicted that which made America special and, in the process, presented the country in the best possible light. 

With so much vested in landscape, the public needed a great artist who painted by instinct and feeling, who could claim a privileged relationship with wild American scenery. In 1849, the year after Cole’s death, Asher B. Durand painted Kindred Spirits, one of the best-​loved double portraits in American art; it is also, tellingly, a landscape. Atop a jutting rock ledge, the still youthful Cole, in a soft broad-​brimmed hat, explains the Hudson River wilderness to Bryant. Bryant hangs on Cole’s words, as the artist gestures evocatively at the scenery beyond, translating it for him. Only Cole, Durand seems to say, can convey the moral and spiritual power and the sublimity of the American wilderness. Only Cole can say just what America truly is.

If nineteenth-​century viewers needed Cole to be untrained and inspired by wilderness, changing views of American art soon obscured his work’s rich relationship with decoration. In the 1820s, when he began painting, the public had few opportunities to see art firsthand. Cole himself removed to Philadelphia specifically to study work hung at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Most paintings belonged to private collectors, often to patrons who had commissioned them. When Cole exhibited a work that was for sale, he expected it to find a private home.

During his lifetime, and for some time thereafter, private individuals hung his pictures, as the artist had anticipated, in decorated interiors meant to stimulate the imagination and the spirit. When then New York governor (and future secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln) William H. Seward received Portage Falls on the Genesee as a gift, he hung the dramatic seven-​foot painting in his drawing room, a space dedicated to imagination, filled with art and carefully chosen decoration. 

In the late nineteenth century, collecting art became a craze, and wealthy Americans amassed vast collections that they donated to newly created museums: the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, San Francisco’s de Young Museum, and countless others. Now anyone could see art, every day. Like other important paintings, Cole’s steadily disappeared from private collections and reappeared in museums. The website of the Wads-worth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, lists 127 of his works with their current locations. Of these paintings, only thirty-​one remain in private hands. 

Ready public access to Cole’s work sustained interest in his pictures, even when modernism nearly snuffed out representational art. At the same time, museums completely changed the experience viewers had with art. Though paintings often retain the frames that artists chose for them, in every other regard, art museums protect paintings from the corrupting influence of decoration. Though galleries originally hung paintings in palatial but recognizably residential interiors, Cole’s works now appear in solitary splendor, usually against gray or off-​white walls. 

Seward House drawing room with Cole’s <i>Portage Falls on the Genesee</i>. (Courtesy of the Seward House Museum)

A viewer stands back, takes a quick look at a painting and perhaps a cellphone shot, then dashes forward to read its label. This little tombstone records the work’s title, subject, and date and describes how it came to hang on the wall. Having identified the quarry, the visitor retreats, backpedaling until the next painting comes into focus, takes a look, then swoops in on the next label. Scanning each carefully curated specimen in turn, the art lover circles the gallery. Any resemblance to immediate three-​dimensional experience is purely accidental. Droning audio tours drown out the story whispered by Cole’s studio chair. 

Most opportunities to engage nineteenth-​century paintings as originally experienced come courtesy of special exhibitions. Rare sites, such as Olana, Church’s villa on the Hudson, mingle original decoration and paintings. Church, likely inspired by his teacher, decorated his own home. Cedar Grove’s décor will soon be carefully restored. 

Elsewhere, paintings still hanging in their original contexts face the menace of irrational prices. The foundation that owns Cole’s Portage Falls on the Genesee removed it in 2013 from the Seward House’s drawing room, citing the enormous value assigned to the work by a recent appraisal and claiming the need to create an endowment for the Seward House by selling it. (A copy now hangs in its place.) Seward descendants counter that the painting is essential to the house’s story and to its historical importance. Given the central role decoration played in Cole’s art, they could reasonably argue that Portage Falls on the Genesee needs the drawing room as much as the room needs it. 

That a painter so brilliant, so influential, and so American developed his talent in the decorative arts during his English youth remains a stunning surprise. The origins of Cole’s painting skills should inspire a reconsideration of his work, and of nineteenth-​century American painting, from the vantage point of a decorated room. Passion for decoration—​and for art that is life, rather than simply a representation of it—​may be as American as the Hudson River or the Catskill Mountains overlooking Cedar Grove. Clues hidden in plain sight—​cups, calicoes, flecks of sky-​blue paint on a wall, a chair rebuilt with bits of British carpet—​recall the true seat of Thomas Cole’s genius. 

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Nancy West's picture
Nancy West · 2 months ago

Excellent article! I learned a lot from reading it. Many thanks to Ms. Dunbar for her efforts here!

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