Two hundred years ago 17-year-old Thomas Cole emigrated from England to the United States, where he would revolutionize painting in his new country by creating “wild landscapes that were unmistakably American.” Born at the onset of the industrial revolution, Cole discovered in the American wilderness an antidote to the polluted rivers, poisoned air, and exploited working people that he had witnessed in the land of his birth.
Cole sought to produce a distinctively American style of painting, which came to be called the Hudson River School. His goal was to capture the powerful beauty of the American wilderness and, in doing so, to distinguish both art and landscape from Europe. He was really after no less than the creation of an American mythology that would use the vast and largely unsettled American continent to forge a national identity among a diverse and disconnected people.
Yet he was also conscious of how fast that landscape was disappearing, and he wanted his art to offer an alternative vision to what he saw as his adoptive country’s reckless embrace of destructive progress. “I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away,” he wrote in Essay on American Scenery. “The most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation . . . desecrated by what is called improvement.”
His fears grew when, after several years working and studying in Europe, he returned to America during the presidency of Andrew Jackson and found a country becoming ever more like the England he had left. “Will the profit-seeking, land-grabbing, manufacturing machine of capitalism overwhelm the beauty of America,” he asked, “or is there a better way?”
Like his contemporary Henry Thoreau, Cole saw a connection between Jackson’s expansionist policies and the nation’s uncontrolled industrial growth. He believed the combination threatened not just the beauty but the moral spirit of the nation, and he depicted their downward spiral in his five-picture series, “The Course of Empire.” For him art was not just about making pretty pictures, but about offering an alternative vision to a country that seemed bent on destroying the very thing that made America exceptional.
Thomas Cole’s paintings are clearly inspired by love for his new country, whose greatness, he believed, transcended economic power and military might. For Cole, as for many subsequent American painters, writers and musicians, the artist’s role was not merely to criticize the established order, but to offer an alternative myth that could bind the nation together. At those times in our history when politicians seek to divide us and speculators greedily divvy up the public landscape, Cole’s images remind us that nature’s value cannot be determine solely in dollars and awe is not only for ordnance.
“Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings” is currently showing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.