Thomas Cole An Essay On American Scenery

The Discovery of American Scenery

Thomas Cole

Art not only shows what we think valuable but helps shape our appreciation

Thomas Cole, Landscape Scene from the Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, 1827

how might you analyze this image? 

  • our wilderness, landscape, are what is special
  • the landscape is engulfing these people--the people are small
  • colors the people are wearing are reflecting the colors of nature
  • bringing people together within nature
  • nature should cause us to feel awe, rather than the old idea of dark satanic wilderness
A popular subject in Europe for landscape paintings was ruins
Cole painted a number of these paintings of European ruins

how did taste change to paintings of American scenery instead?

At the time of the American revolution:
  • U.S. at this point was very much a third world country (poor and backwards)
  • a new nation made up of pieces that had been separate
  • therefore needed things they could be proud of as a nation, to hold them together
The natural environment was one of the few things where the new United States could claim superiority--remember that the
  • The Mississippi is greater than rivers in Europe (Philip Freneau)
  • consider the position of Americans abroad trying to respond to Europeans who looked down on the new United States
  • Abigail Adams--Europe may have superior culture, but nature is better in the U.S.  See the whole letter here
In particular, what was unmatched was the wildness of American wilderness

Examples came slowly:
William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis,  A Forest Hymn
James Fenimore Cooper
  • The Leatherstocking Tales: The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans
  • his novels admired the people who lived closer to wilderness--he regretted what was lost with the coming of civilization but saw civilization as the greater good
  • instead of copying European novels, write about how life in the United States is different
  • thinking about what makes us different (and hopefully better) as Americans
Artists played a particularly important role
One example is Thomas Cole, one of the founders of an approach to art that came to be known as the Hudson River School

Cole came to the US in 1818 at the age of 17

In the 1820s his wilderness paintings were a big success

Thomas Cole, Mountain Sunrise, 1826

Thomas Cole, Falls of Kaaterskil, 1826

Cole had mixed feelings about the dangers of nature and the glories of Europe, but he wrote a very influential "Essay on American Scenery."  Very different from earlier views.  He wrote: "Nature has spread for us a rich and delightful banquet. Shall we turn from it? We are still in Eden; the wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly."

  1. Americans focused on wilderness because that was what they could brag about relative to Europe
  2. they draw a parallel between wilderness and temples, great buildings
  3. argue that we can experience and worship God in wilderness
  4. grows into a central argument that experiencing wilderness brings us closer to God
Before the civil war the usual view was that wilderness was important but what we strive for was a balance between wilderness and civilization

Cole, The Oxbow, 1836--shows wilderness on left and agriculture on the right

Man's optimum environment is a blend of the wild and the civilized

Schroon Mountain, Adirondacks, Thomas Cole, (1801-1848) United States, oil on canvas, Cleveland Museum of Art; Cleveland, Ohio, 1838

Cole had many followers:

Frederic Church:

Frederick Church, Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860

artists brought to people the idea that wilderness was beautiful and it should lead us to feelings of awe
  • what could we be proud of--having wilder wilderness
  • saw nature as bringing us closer to God
  • nature builds character, makes Americans what we are
it is city people who first begin to appreciate wilderness--it is appreciated only when we think it is going away

This page written and copyright Pamela E. Mack
last updated 2/22/10
Hist 124

Thomas Cole’s “Essay on American Scenery” suggests that he paints natural scenes to experience a particular emotional response—one he describes variably as “a calm religious tone,” “tranquility and peace,” and a feeling “as though a great void had been filled in our minds” (100, 103, 105). He writes about “the importance of cultivating a taste for scenery,” which practice he seems to define as the appreciation of nature’s physical beauty and the ability of that beauty to give us peace and perspective. The relationship with nature he describes seems disturbingly one-sided: nature, it would appear, exists to provide us with views and artistic material and psychological ease. Cole briefly mentions his “sorrow” that mankind’s “ravages of the axe” have been wrecking “the most noble scenes,” but he acknowledges his own ambivalence, saying, “This is a regret rather than a complaint; such is the road society has to travel” (109). When describing the first European settlers in America, he calls then “an enlightened and increasing people” who “with activity and power wrought changes that seem magical” (102). His appreciation of the wildness or savagery of nature is almost always coupled with a gratefulness for the beautiful or picturesque, for something to “temper” that vision of overwhelming power. He describes his wonder at “[the marriage of] grandeur and loveliness,” betraying his personal belief in the equivalence of beauty and goodness he mentions.

Cole’s painting, “View from Mount Holyoke,” can be read in a similar way: clouds brew over the dark, wild, uncultivated portion of the scene, while the exposed valley seems to have braved the storm and now appears bright, ordered, benign, and attractive. The land by “the Oxbow” appears cultivated, which the sunlight and left-to-right conventions of reading suggest we see as progress. It appears to be “lovely,” “peaceful,” and “charming”—all traits Cole values in his essay (106, 107). The broken spear in the left foreground may indicate some uncertainty—perhaps the same questions Cole posed in his essay about our destruction of the landscape and its wilderness—but it would represent a very subtly raised concern.

Cole seems to resort to nature as a balm—as many who champion the natural world do—but I have difficulty viewing his approach as other than somewhat superficial and irresponsible. He describes natural beauty as functioning like a mask, able to “cast a veil of tender beauty over the asperities of life” (101). Though the beauty of nature may have substantial, perceptible influence over his own psyche, he seems to turn to it for a band-aid-type distraction rather than a constructive solution. He does not seem to feel any obligation to protect or maintain the beauty of the landscape he exploits, which further characterizes his appreciation as a shallow one. In fact, his writings and works suggest that he may prefer the human-inhabited (but not -dominated), “tempered” world to its unknowable and intimidating, truly natural state.


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