There was a time when Thomas Cole, the celebrated landscape painter and Hudson River School artist, was an unknown portraitist travelling by foot across the northeast, determined to make a living for himself with nothing but a dollar in his pocket. Cole’s eventual success was due in part to that incredible drive, his passionate commitment to art, and his undeniable talent. But it was also thanks to Colonel John Trumbull, the renowned artist of the American Revolution, that Cole would receive the praise, criticism, and study he does today.
An anonymous writer (none other than theater producer, fellow artist, and chronicler William Dunlap) wrote to the New-York Evening Post about the circumstances of their singular meeting. By his recollection, Colonel Trumbull visited the shop of art dealer George W. Dixey, and upon finding three landscape paintings of Cole’s, exclaimed “where did this come from!” He “continued gazing, almost incapable of understanding the answer”: The paintings were done by an unknown young man with no formal training or expertise. “What I now purchase for 25 dollars I would not part with for 25 guineas,” he said afterwards. Today, he would have bought the painting for about $560 – but would not have parted with it for over $3,000. “I am delighted, and at the same time mortified. This youth has done at once, and without instruction, what I cannot do after 50 years’ practice.” Colonel Trumbull was referring to his difficulty with landscape painting.
Colonel Trumbull purchased Cole’s original Falls of Kaaterskill on the spot. Dunlap and fellow painter Asher B. Durand, impressed “beyond the expectation” their friend had raised, bought the remaining two: View of Fort Putnam and View of Lake with Dead Trees. All three would leave their cards for Cole.
The effusive compliment Colonel Trumbull extended to Cole could not have been paid to a man less certain of his ability. His early years as a landscape painter were blighted by doubt. On July 15, 1826, Cole was in the Catskills, a place he would later call his home. He writes to Trumbull describing “scenery of the finest kind,” venerating the “broad Hudson with its cultivated shores” and the Catskill Mountains “ever changing in colour, light and shadow.” Despite these surroundings, Cole confided that he struggled to create.
I ought to improve with all these advantages, but as yet can not congratulate myself with having [gained] much. I never was less pleased with what I did. I have begun three or four pictures and have thrown each aside in disgust. I am sometimes inclined to think that I have lost the little talent I did possess. Perhaps this disgust at what I do arises from seeing nature around me in perfect beauty and am made conscious of my weakness by comparison.”
Even the most talented among us toil, but Cole’s accomplishments spoke and will forever speak for themselves.
Visit New-York Historical Society’s exhibit Hudson Rising (through August 4, 2019) to view Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire.
This post is by Crystal Toscano, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.