Realism Elevated to Idealism

Article excerpt

This surprisingly small painting - not much more than 3 feet by 2 - epitomizes the characteristically awe-inspiring scale and majesty of Hudson River School landscape painting. These 19th-century artists recognized in American landscape a serene and vast wilderness that might symbolize the expansive ambitions of the nation as well as offering an imaginative escape from its rapid urbanization.

Thomas Cole, preeminent among the school's founders, went further. He aimed at what he termed "a higher style of landscape." He thought its realism should be elevated to idealism. When Robert Gilmor, one of Cole's patrons, suggested Cole paint "some known subject from [James Fenimore] Cooper's novels," Cole painted more than one such subject. "Scene from 'The Last of the Mohicans,' Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund" is a fine example. It was intended for Gilmor, but Hartford collector Daniel Wadsworth bought it first; Cole painted a copy for Gilmor.

"The Last of the Mohicans" (1826) was instantly a bestselling book. It is set in the wilderness that inspired Cole. …