Oct 3, 2018 in Art

Thomas Cole is famous for his breathtaking landscapes. He believed that art should have an educative side to it and instruct the viewer, to communicate a moral, not to merely reflect or copy the creation. That is why I chose Cole’s The View on the Catskill, Early Autumn. It is the largest of the Thomas Cole’s artwork. I could hardly waited till I see it and I wasn’t disappointed when I got this chance.

The oil painting on the canvas shows the magnificent landscape of the wilderness that surrounds Catskill, the place where Thomas Cole lived. The life is thriving and the landscape is green and filled with the light and life. The sun, though unseen behind the tree, illuminates the picture from the right side.

From the first look, only nature is seen, with vast and untamed freedom. In the central part of the picture is the Creek: a life-giving stream that carries its waters, calmly, peacefully and majestically. The surrounding trees and wildlife is reflected in the water just like in the giant mirror. At the same time, the artist, using horizontal strokes, shows the flow of the creek and the steadiness of it. The water is calm, but it is not static.

The area is forested to the horizon, with some areas being illuminated by the sunlight, and others being in the shade, with the very dark area almost in the middle of the artwork. It looks almost like a void, and it is unclear what is there. Possibly, in order to show how vast the wilderness is, the artist pictured mountains on the horizon.

After being exposed to such grandeur, the eye gets adjusted and the finer details can be seen. The wilderness contains life. There is a mother bringing wildflowers to her child, enjoying their time together without interrupting the nature. A little further, there are horses running free with a man chasing them in futile attempt to catch them. In the creek, there is a tiny rowboat with a man peacefully rowing away. On the right side of the picture there is a hunter leaning on the fence who is peacefully watching a woman and a child. Then, in the sunny spot, almost in the middle of the picture, there is a stone house, obviously occupied, judging from a smoke coming out of the chimney. The nature prevails with people only living alongside it, with no intrusion. The only sign of the destructive human activity is the cut tree trunk in the left corner of the picture. However, with the dark colors in the background, there is a sense of danger or of something sad that is about to happen. The illuminated spots accentuate happy moments of people, animals and nature coexisting harmoniously. Even the cut tree trunk is partly illuminated – maybe it meant to show that nature allows man to provide for his needs. The tree on the right, the largest on the picture, allows sunrays through it and its leaves are golden because of it.

The picture has many characteristics of romanticism, which is more of a mood than a style. The painting does not only meticulously portraits the landscape details, but it also conveys the feeling of calmness and sets the reflective mood. That is highly characteristic for the romantic artists. Also, looking at the fine details of the painting, it is easy to notice other romantic ideas such as the dark and white unspotted horses running freely; a woman resembling a goddess in her long flowing pastel color dress. She took off her hat and the spectator can see her neatly done hair, with the artist detailing even the ribbon in it. Also, it is a classical portrayal of the mother and a baby – Madonna with the child. The hunter is not occupied with anything but is just beholding the sight of the woman. Some think that the hunter represents a self portrait of Thomas Cole. The artist also used the technique known as “luminism”, which is the use of “sky, light and atmospheric effects to suggest the immanence of God” (Krech, 652).

The painting also follows realistic style and the artist strives to make a picture of the landscape as detailed as possible.

After the American Revolution the landscape painting became increasingly more popular, and in the beginning of the 19th century the group of landscape painters emerged, with Thomas Cole being the founder of the Hudson River School. The artists were inspired by such European artists as John Constable and Turner. Along with other painters such as Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole gave primary attention to the American landscape painting. This occupation became more than only art expression; it had a cultural meaning, a form of social influence and a mean of American land exaltation.

The beginning of 19th century was marked with the fast developing land exploration and technical progress and the emergence of the railroads.

Although extensive clear-cutting of forests, strip mining and other industrial and agricultural ventures were rapidly transforming the face of the American land, the artists of the Hudson River School, and, indeed, most nineteen-century American landscape painters, tended to avoid portraying such scenes (Krech 755).

Instead, they carefully painted the untouched wilderness that was alike to the Garden of Eden, rich in vegetation and full of life and abundance. The artists were often sketching right from the location.

Artists from Hudson River School not only painted many artworks depicting wilderness, but also were exploring new techniques of giving their paintings the realism not seen before. They also wrote many articles, “urging painters to experience wilderness for themselves and to celebrate America’s natural wonders and to foster a sense of nationalism” (Krech, 652). Due to their efforts, the Catskill became major tourist attraction. In the present day we can get to know what the land looked like before it got deforested and exploited. 

The View on Catskill, Early Autumn had a great impact on me. The lovely and vibrant colors, the grandeur of the scene overall, lush and unique greenery – everything is beautiful and calm. And even though there is a sense of approaching changes and adversity, Thomas Cole was also able to convey the hope and God’s presence. The nature and God are magnificent and uncontrollable, but the man can live in peace and harmony with both.

The sketches made at the site and finished later in the workshop. The painting, besides being realistic, is also very romantic and dream-like – a picture of a perfection.

It made me a little sad to see this tranquil life, the cozy house in the forest, wilderness, the creek…We are missing it in the modern life. Cole painted the area before the railroad and technological progress came there. The picture is very different now, with the landscape being deforested, wildlife missing and human life lacking colors and purpose. View on the Catskill, Early Autumn, has not only great historical significance, allowing the next generations to have a peak into history and human life in the older times. It also communicates with the spectators, influencing their feelings, filling them with the sense of national pride and warning of the consequence of their wrongdoings toward the nature. The painting also helps realize the power of true art, when the skillful combination of colors and shapes can not only duplicate the nature but it also translates feelings and thoughts.  The painting is even more remarkable for me since Cole was not a painter by his occupation and he never had a formal artist education. But he had a desire to paint and he succeeded, becoming one of the best American artists.

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