Biography of Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) was an American artist and early environmentalist. Cole founded the first major art movement of the United States, now known as the Hudson River School of landscape painting. The themes that Cole explored in his art and writings—such as landscape preservation and our conception of nature as a restorative power—are both historic and timely.

Thomas Cole was born in 1801 at Bolton, Lancashire in Northwestern England and emigrated with his family to the United States in 1818. During the early years Cole lived for short periods in Philadelphia, Ohio, and Pittsburgh where he worked as an itinerant portrait artist. Although primarily self-taught, Cole worked with members of the Pennsylvania Academy, and his canvases were included in the Academy’s exhibitions.

In 1825, Cole discovered the haunting beauty of the Catskill wilderness. His exhibition of small paintings of Catskill landscapes came to the attention of prominent figures on the New York City art scene including Asher B. Durand, who became a life-long friend, and his fame spread. While he was still in his twenties, Cole was made a fellow of the National Academy.

In 1829-1831, Cole returned to Britain for study, to attend to family business and to travel to France and Italy. These years were among the most productive of his life. Cole met a large number of wealthy Americans traveling abroad and received numerous commissions from them, increasing his reputation and stature.

Cole returned to New York City in November of 1832 and mounted an exhibition of his European paintings, which aroused considerable public interest. Shortly thereafter, Cole first established his rural studio in Catskill, New York, when he rented a small outbuilding at Cedar Grove, now the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. There, he met the Bartow/Thomson family, who resided at Cedar Grove.

It was during this period that Cole began his relationship with Luman Reed. A native of Coxsackie, New York, Reed was a successful local merchant who had moved to New York City and opened a private art gallery there. He became Cole’s patron, and for Reed, Cole produced one of his best-known and popular series of paintings, known as “The Course of Empire.”

During the winter of 1835-1836, Cole stayed in Catskill working on “The Course of Empire.” During this period Cole began to express strong views concerning the impact of industrial development and its negative consequences for the wild beauty of the Catskills landscapes that were the source of inspiration for his work. The growth of the railroad by “copper-hearted barbarians” was of particular concern. In 1836, both Cole’s father and his patron Luman Reed died, but there was happiness in that year as well.

On November 22, 1836, Thomas Cole and Maria Bartow were married at Cedar Grove, which became Cole’s home. The couple was given a suite of rooms on the second floor of the house. Many of the great painters and literary figures of the day began to visit the Coles at their Catskill home. Among the calling cards in the Cole papers of the Albany Institute of History and Art is that of James Fenimore Cooper. On January 1, 1838, the Cole’s first child, Theodore Alexander Cole was born.

In March of 1839, Cole agreed to produce four paintings to be known as “The Voyage of Life” for Samuel Ward, a wealthy banker and philanthropist. The price agreed upon was $5000. Ward would die in November of that year without seeing his commission completed in December of 1840.

On August 7, 1841, Cole traveled to Europe once more, visiting relatives in England. Again, he visited France and Italy and journeyed to Switzerland. Cole was a welcome and popular guest. He painted a second “Voyage of Life” while in Italy and shipped the series to New York. Cole returned from his second European tour on the steamship “Great Western” in July of 1842.

After his return from Europe, Cole made the decision to receive baptism, confirmation and communion in the Episcopal Church and became a member of Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Catskill. Cole later designed a new church building for Saint Luke’s and for his friend and eventual biographer, the Reverend Louis L. Noble, the Church Rector.

By February of 1843, Thomas Cole was realizing that he had become a public figure and commented on this in his letters. Cole was also having financial troubles. Throughout the subsequent years, he continued to worry about selling his paintings. During this time, a number of Cole letters and poems were published in New York papers and magazines.

In May of 1844 Cole agreed to accept Frederic E. Church as a student in his studio. Church’s father agreed to pay $300 per year for young affluent Church’s instruction. This agreement lasted until June, 1846. Room and board was three dollars a week. Cole took on a second student, Benjamin McConkey, on the same terms.

In February 1846, Cole began another series of paintings to be called “The Cross and the World.” Cole’s second studio, some distance from the main house, was built during this period and was used by the artist from this time on. Cole designed this building himself, which came to be known as the “New Studio.”

On February 6, 1848, the Cole family attended a morning service at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Catskill. After lunch, Cole complained of lassitude and by midnight his condition worsened and the doctor was summoned. An attack of pleurisy and congestion of his lungs followed. Thomas Cole died in the Main House at Cedar Grove at 8 pm on Friday, February 11th, 1848. The funeral was held at Saint Luke’s Church and burial was in the family vault at Cedar Grove on February 15th. Due to extremely cold weather, however, very few friends could attend these last rites. Cole’s body was later moved to the Thomson Street Cemetery.

 

Painting:

Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), Portrait of Thomas Cole, 1838. Oil on Canvas, 30 1/4 x 25 in. Framed: 36 1/2 x 31 1/2 in. Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA, Gift of Zenas Crane, 1917.

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Old Studio

The Old Studio is a barn-like building where Thomas Cole created many of his most iconic and celebrated paintings. The building was restored in 2004 and is now furnished with his original easels and other art-making equipment and tools.

Immediately after his marriage in 1836, Thomas Cole worked in the Main House itself. But in 1839, Cole was able to move to the Old Studio, a larger and more private space, thanks to John Thomson. The new location was a separate building on Cedar Grove’s grounds, as Cole explained in a letter to Asher B. Durand in December of 1839:

“Do you know that I have got into a new painting Room? Mr. Thomson has lately erected a sort of Store-house + has let me have part of it for a temporary painting room [;] it answers pretty well [;] is somewhat larger than my old one + being removed from the noise + bustle of the house is really charming…”

Although Cole considered this a temporary arrangement, he painted many of his most important works in this storehouse studio, including the Voyage of Life for his patron Samuel Ward, as the ceiling was high enough to accommodate large canvasses. A fireplace permitted Cole to work in any season, and Cole himself paid for the addition of a large skylight-like window to admit northern light, the preferred light for painting. Cole welcomed visits from his family to the studio, and the Cole children came and went while their father was working. The Old Studio also afforded the space for grinding pigments into paint, constructing stretchers, stretching canvasses, and fitting pictures into frames. Painting at this time involved a lot of hard physical labor—active, smelly, and frequently messy.

Cole painted in the Old Studio for seven years until December 1846. In his Christmas journal entry for that year, Cole recorded, “I am now sitting in my New Studio which is about completed though the walls are not yet dry.” Learn more about the New Studio here.

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Main House

The Main House is a three-story, Federal structure of painted brick that was built in 1815 by the brothers Thomas and John Thomson.  In 1836, Cole married John Thomson’s niece, Maria Bartow, who was living in the Main House with her uncle along with her sisters. After Thomas and Maria were married, the Main House became Cole’s permanent home. During Cole’s lifetime the household included John Thomson, Maria’s three unmarried sisters, three of the Coles’ children, Theodore, Mary, and Emily, and several hired servants. In the 1830s and 40s, Thomsons, Bartows, Coles, and their servants occupied every inch of the main house, including its attic and basement, and space was tight. There were between 11 and 14 people living in the home during this time.

Before the 1850s, American rooms seldom had fixed single uses as they do today. Like other significant rooms in the house, the entry hall had many purposes. In addition to providing a transition between outside and inside, the hall served as the receiving parlor for guests, a gathering place, a dining room, a children’s playroom, and a work area, especially in hot weather when the door could be left open to let in a breeze. Circular vents or grates in the second-floor bedrooms hint that a coal stove in the entry hall powered an innovative central heating system intended to heat bedrooms and the east parlor in the winter. The Thomson-Cole household used coal very early, as evidenced by records showing the purchase of coal stoves by John Thomson in the 1830s.

The west parlor, or sitting room, always had opulent appointments right from the beginning when furnishings were first being acquired for the house in 1821. In addition to a pianoforte worth the great sum of $250, the room contained a set of rush-bottomed chairs with a settee—together worth $42—a tea table, a writing table, a valuable carpet, an elegant looking-glass valued at $45, and the latest heating technology, which was a pyramid stove that probably burned wood. Despite this stove, however, the family continued to complain of cold in their letters and diaries throughout the 1830s and 40s. Around the time of the Coles’ 1836 marriage, the room was modified and updated to reflect the new Greek Revival style then in vogue.

The east parlor’s position and size make it the most likely location for family meals, although it was called the “East Parlor,” not the dining room. But in the first half of the nineteenth century, it would have been uncommon to have a designated eating room. Lightweight, highly mobile dining furniture moved around as required; and families used the room in which they ate for many other activities, including family prayers, children’s lessons, sewing, and socializing with friends. Thus, eating in the “East Parlor” rather than in the “dining room” followed period custom.

Upstairs, the Cole sitting room, the children’s bedroom, and Thomas and Maria’s bedroom constituted the Cole family apartment. The sitting room particularly provided the Coles with a private space, separate from the extended family, in which to create and maintain a married life together. Over the years, as the Cole family grew, there is a sense that the room was a refuge for the artist as well as for his wife. In the winter, the Coles drew together around their stove for such activities as reading aloud, sewing, and making quilts.

The small space off the Cole sitting room is believed to be the children’s bedroom. By 1846, Theodore, Mary, and Emily were old enough to share a room, which was common practice at the time. In an era of limited space, heat, and privacy, adults as well as children frequently shared bedrooms and beds. In fact, all three children may have slept in the same bed, or one child may have occupied a cot in the same room.

In the north corner of the crowded house, Thomas and Maria enjoyed the luxury of a small private bedroom. This room’s proximity to the Cole’s sitting room and to the children’s bedroom had obvious advantages. The Cole’s bedroom also offered ready access to the stairway and, via a triple-hung window, to the second floor porch. Perhaps befitting their new status as a married couple, the Coles slept in the most expensive bed in the house, one of two curtained beds owned by John Thomson. The remaining bedroom on the second floor was occupied by Maria Cole’s three unmarried sisters: Emily, Harriet and Francis.

Immediately after his marriage to Maria in 1836, Thomas Cole apparently worked in the main house itself. But in 1839, Cole was able to move to a larger and more private space in the Old Studio.

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Thomas Cole’s New Studio

On May 1, 2016, the reconstruction of Thomas Cole’s New Studio officially opened to the public. Originally built in 1846 according to Thomas Cole’s own design, the building stood about 75 yards from Cole’s home in Catskill for 125 years. Tragically, it was torn down in 1973 after falling into disrepair. Now, after many years of research and a successful capital campaign, the building has been reconstructed and is open to visitors. Visit Reconstructing Thomas Cole’s New Studio for a behind-the-scenes look into the process.

The interior of the New Studio features a state-of-the-art exhibition space for displaying changing exhibitions, and its open floor plan provides a flexible space for lectures and educational programing. The building enables the Thomas Cole National Historic Site to effectively serve as a catalyst for the burgeoning national and international interest in 19th century American landscape painting, an outstanding destination for visitors to and residents of the Hudson Valley, and a resource and inspiration for future generations of scholars, collectors and artists.

Jasper Cropsey, Thomas Cole's Studio, Catskill, New York, 1850. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Jasper Cropsey, Thomas Cole’s Studio, Catskill, New York, 1850. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

An Inspiration for Generations

After Cole’s death, his widow Maria, her three unmarried sisters and the Cole children – Theodore, Mary, Emily, and Thomas II – remained at the Cole property, known as Cedar Grove.  For decades little changed at the property, which was maintained consistently by the family into the twentieth century, as one reporter in 1871 described it, “like a shrine.”  After Cole’s passing, artists Frederic Church and Jasper Cropsey sketched Cedar Grove, including glimpses of the “new studio,” the only such images that survive before photographs from the turn of the century.   After his visit, Cropsey wrote this moving description of the space:

After breakfast we were invited to the studio. It is a new building about 1000 yards from the house, large and commodious, with a neat little porch and a wide open hall before entering the painting department. It is built in the modern florid style. We Entered; it seemed as if Mr. Cole would be in in a few minutes for every thing remains as when he last left painting. The picture he last painted on yet stands on the Easel, The brushes he painted with that last day are there; his paint table looks as when he was there – There too is the sketches upon the floor, and standing by the Easel as he left them – There are his books, his writing table, portfolios, and in short I felt like asking, “when will Mr. C be in,” Though the man has departed, yet he has left a spell behind him that is not broken, as you may sit there upon the sofa, and look upon his works, we will feel more than ever the devotion, genius and spirit of the man. Every thing breaths so much candor of will, truth of purpose, and love of the refined and beautiful, that we feel a kind of reverence there, we instinctively feel like taking off our hats, when we enter although He is not there.

A Comprehensive Plan

The Trustees and staff of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site completed a new strategic plan in 2010 focusing on transforming Thomas Cole’s home and studios into a leading center for education and scholarship about the artist and his influence on America’s cultural landscape. These goals will be achieved with dynamic and relevant programming, supported by an expanding permanent collection and well maintained physical facilities.

The New Studio is part of the overall site-wide plan to prepare the organization for a strong and sustainable future. Many pieces of the plan have already been implemented – including a site-wide landscape restoration, upgrades to parking and paths, reconstruction of the historic stone wall and fence along Spring Street, and relocating staff offices out of the 1815 Main House and into a different building on the property.  The reconstruction of the New Studio will provide the Thomas Cole National Historic Site with many of the remaining key pieces of the plan: an interior program space that serves as a museum-quality gallery for special exhibitions and a lecture hall for a variety of programs and events. It will serve all ages and segments of the community – students and teachers, families, scholars, area businesses and visitors from across the country. Most importantly, the New Studio project will ensure that present and future generations can learn about the profound impact of Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School.

Support provided by Market NY through I LOVE NY/ New York State’s Division of Tourism as a part of the Regional Economic Development Council awards.

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