Thomas Cole is a hard artist to fully understand today. In looking at his work one might be tempted to look past his innovations to a merely scenic or decorative aesthetic. Cole burst out of the Catskill forests in 1826 with a set of paintings that made him a sensation. Although his technique was based along the likes of Lorrian and Rosa, Cole started a new American landscape. Whereas his old world heroes worked strictly in manicured landscape, land heavily controlled by man, as well as the artist, Cole brought wild and pure landscape to the table.
This might sound obvious now, but it was revolutionary and totally American in 1826. More than just innovation to paint wilderness and audaciousness, Cole was also clever enough to wrap his new, wild subjects in a logical style acceptable to the art community. This seemingly small step freed future landscape painters of many limiting obligations. It also made Cole a national celebrity, because his new aesthetic was seen as a visual equivalent of American identity.
Cole was much less impressive as an artist formally. His historical importance, being as huge as it became, cast a large shadow. But he was interesting formally. His passages of think, swirling paint are almost unbeatable in realist painting.
One thing of interest is that he did some pretty bad paintings, especially early on. It is rare that an artist of his reputation has such underachieving works in his main catalogue. Yet he was capable of masterpieces, even early, such as Landscape with Tree Trunks, from 1828.
Later, he would mix his landscape aesthetic with moralizing history painting, to create two great series, Course of Empire and Voyage of Life. These are often seen as the pinnacle of Cole's art. Though ambitious, I'm not drawn to these works compared to his pure landscape. His pure landscape is direct, honest and ambiguous. His true strength and strongest contribution to history were his wild American scenes.
In contemplating the morality of the American wilderness Cole painted The Oxbow, his greatest work. In it he visually discusses the taming of America's land, an issue he was very vocal about, but also the battle between pure landscape and history painting. Even a man as loyal to landscape as Cole seemed to waver under the pressure of man-made narrative. Yet a painting like The Oxbow showcases landscape's conceptual as well as aesthetic and emotional potential.