The Discovery of American Scenery
Thomas Cole

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

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

how might you analyze this image? 

A popular subject in Europe for landscape paintings was ruins
Cole painted a number of these paintings of European ruins
Cole, The Course of Empire: Desolation
how did taste change to paintings of American scenery instead?

At the time of the American revolution:
The natural environment was one of the few things where the new United States could claim superiority--remember that the
In particular, what was unmatched was the wildness of American wilderness

Examples came slowly:
William Cullen Bryant, ThanatopsisA Forest Hymn
James Fenimore Cooper
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
Cole, Mountain Sunrise
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
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.
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:
Twilight in the Wilderness
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
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
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