Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Thomas Cole and the Episcopal Church

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Thomas Cole and the Episcopal Church

Article excerpt

This essay will survey the part that Christian faith played in the life and works of the great American landscape painter Thomas Cole, who died on February 11 1848. In particular, it will explore his relationship to the Episcopal (Anglican) Church and will seek to demonstrate how that relationship came to be increasingly interwoven with the paintings that he produced, especially his monumental series called "The Voyage of Life."1

Today in retrospect, Thomas Cole is regarded and remembered as the founder of the Hudson River School, the first American native school of landscape painting. Its work, and especially Cole's, was inspired by the beauty of the new country, its vast spaces, virgin forests, rocks, streams, and rivers, which Cole rendered with deep insight, dramatic power, and consummate skill. His works exhibit a certain optimism in the face of nature, but also a caution that nature alone would not be able to sustain all the promise that it seemed to offer. Although his only direct student was the painter Frederic Church, Cole's art and legacy provided the foundation of the native landscape school that is said to have dominated American painting until the late 1860s.

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) was born in 1801 in Bolton-le-Moor, Lancashire, England, near Lancaster. His father, a manufacturer of handicrafts, went bankrupt when Thomas was a young boy, and at the age of fourteen Thomas was apprenticed first to a designer of calico prints and then to an engraver. As a youth and schoolboy, Thomas would have been familiar with Anglicanism, the established church in England, even though he was not a part of it. In 1818 Cole (at the age of seventeen) and his family immigrated to the United States, where for the next five years he earned a meager livelihood as an engraver and itinerant portrait painter. Part of his boyhood was lived in Steubenville, Ohio. Cole enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1823, but left after less than two years, convinced that formal education would not benefit him and that nature was his true teacher.

In 1825 Cole moved to New York City, but traveled extensively in New York state and in New England. He was constandy sketching and painting, especially landscapes, and in the summer of 1825 he took a trip up the Hudson River. At the very same time the Erie Canal was extending the reaches of the mighty Hudson from Albany to the shores of Lake Erie, the last two sections of the canal were completed in 1825. In 1829 at the age of twenty-eight Cole sailed for Europe, searching for the works of old masters as well as contemporary artists, visiting Paris, Rome, and Naples, and staying for longer periods in London and Florence. He returned home in 1832, to settle eventually in the town of Catskill, New York, and in 1834 he finally took out naturalization papers to become a United States citizen, about sixteen years after his first arrival in this country. His home, "Cedar Grove," overlooked the Catskills.

Cole had returned from Europe with a number of completed canvases, hundreds of drawings, and the fully developed plans for his first quasi-historical/allegorical series of paintings, "The Course of Empire." This series of five paintings, done over the years 1833-36 and now in the New York Historical Society, was based upon a theme of imperial rise and decline that Cole had probably taken from a poem written by the eighteenth century Irish Anglican philosopher and bishop, George Berkeley, which contained the famous line "Westward the course of empire takes its way."2 Described in 1849, a year after Cole's death, byjames Fenimore Cooper as "the work of the highest genius this country has ever produced,"* 3 this series questioned the conventional American view of continuous upward progress. In the five paintings of this series Cole was already positing a moral, if not yet religious, evaluation of the hypothetical course of history as he projected it. The first of the series, "The Savage State," depicted a wilderness day emerging in the context of the savage state of humanity. …

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