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Thomas Cole was one of the greatest landscape painters of the early XIX century and is considered to be the pioneer of the American landscape painting tradition. He is also known as the founder of the Hudson River School, the first National landscape painting institute, influenced by Romanticism. Born in February of 1801 in Bolton, Lancashire, Cole was in the mist of the Industrial Revolution and witnessed the destruction of the natural resources that the fast industrialization caused. Cole worked in the textile industry during a period in which he saw at first hand the social impact the revolution created, forcing many workers to lose their jobs. Many workers rebelled against the system and destroyed the machinery that took their positions.
During Cole’s youth, he was greatly inspired by British landscape painters like John Constable, J. M. W. Turner, John Martin, among other Romanticist artists. These artists portrayed the drama of idealized landscapes, but also the fire and smoke of England’s transformation. The poet William Cullen Bryant was Cole’s best friend and encouraged him to continue to seek and portray the untouched wilderness in his art. In correspondence to Cole, Bryant describes how Europe was taken by humankind’s interaction in the form of buildings and ruins.
In 1818, Cole’s father was forced to move to the USA along with his family because of financial difficulties. During this period, the young Cole was a self-taught painter who began to make his name as an artist portraying the American Wilderness. Many art historians consider the painter to be the first environmental artist, as he sought to preserve nature - thus beginning the tradition of painting landscapes in America. He believed that nature was a work of God and he would experience God through depicting landscapes. By the time Cole was exploring the American East coast, so was the industrial humankind through the growing railroads, the construction of dams, as well as the lumber merchants who were deforesting the land. In a sense, many of Cole’s landscapes have a nostalgic feeling, since he would idealize an untouched scene.
Cole would often build a patchwork of images from different landscapes he saw, like in the painting Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, an American landscape with bits of fauna and flora from the New York City botanical garden, as well as his recent trip to the Caribbean. Many of his artworks are compilations of sketches, memories, and influences from artists he admired, like the paintings and engravings of Claude Lorrain. The British artist eventually returned to England but wasn’t taken seriously as a professional artist. On the upside, he saw the sublime landscapes created by John Martin, as well as befriending John Constable. Afterward, Cole moved to southern Italy, where he worked more with landscape sketches in oil. The painter passed away in February 1848 at 47 years old, in Catskill, New York.