Landscape (Landscape with Tree Trunks)
Landscape (Landscape with Tree Trunks), 1828
Oil on canvas
66.4 x 81.9 cm (26 1/8 x 32 1/4 inches)
Walter H. Kimball Fund 30.063
During his trips to the Catskills of New York and the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Cole explored the theme of unspoiled nature in a land he perceived to be ripe with promise. His early compositions combined topographical accuracy with acute observation. In this landscape of 1828, European conventions of the sublime and picturesque also come into play. Nature’s drama unfolds as storm clouds part to reveal a mountaintop bathed in sunlight. A blasted tree, representing the vulnerability of living things and the cycle of life and death, mediates between heaven and earth. A Native American, nearly invisible to the eye at the top of the waterfall, animates the scene and represents physical and spiritual kinship with the landscape.
(October 11, 2013 – February 9, 2014)
Thomas Cole’s early paintings celebrated unspoiled nature in a land ripe with promise, combining acute observation with European conventions of the picturesque and the sublime. An English immigrant, Cole studied in Philadelphia before establishing his career in New York. Trips to New England and the Catskills provided material for landscapes painted later in the studio.
Here, a passing storm reveals a mountaintop bathed in sunlight; a blasted tree, dead from a lightning strike, mediates between heaven and earth and suggests the cycle of life. Human presence is interjected at the top of the waterfall, where a Native American salutes nature’s magnificence.
Edited ByWoolsey, Ann, ed.
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2008
TypeMonographs and CollectionsSelection VIIAmerican Painting from the Museum's Collection, c.1800-1930
Contributions byMandel, Patrica C.F.
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1977
Wilton, Andrew and Tim Barringer. “American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880”. London: Tate Publishing, 2002.
Lee, Elizabeth. “America en plein air: Impressions by Henry Ruanmn MacGinnis”. Carlisle: The Trout Gallery, Dickinson College, 2008.
About the work
By 1828, when Thomas Cole completed this painting, much of the East Coast of the United States was inhabited by people of European heritage, and nature was being destroyed to make room for industry. A resident of New York City, Cole would have seen this industrial boom firsthand, although many of his paintings, including this one, depict vast, untamed wilderness with minimal signs of human intervention.
Cole was highly critical of the political changes happening on the eve of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, and he sought to counteract the greed of American expansion by focusing on the purity of nature. Here, within the grand, powerful landscape, he includes a lone Native American pointing westward. Cole held a mystical, romantic vision of Americans Indians as being more attuned to the natural world, and he anticipated the loss of their cultures along with the loss of their land.
Ask your students to brainstorm a list of words describing the mood of this landscape, then have them consider the following questions: How does Cole’s treatment of the clouds and sky contribute to the mood? What geologic and natural features does Cole emphasize, and how do they affect the mood?
Cole made many nature studies in the Hudson River Valley that he later completed as paintings in his New York City studio. Based on your analysis, which parts of the scene might have been observed in nature, and which elements or treatments may have been added later for their symbolism?
The Native American appears at the top of the waterfall in the center of the painting. Why might Cole have included this figure, and what does the inclusion tell us about how he viewed the relationship between Native Americans and nature?
The evolving idea of manifest destiny was promoted by President Andrew Jackson and others to support the zealous purchase and consumption of land and natural resources, fueling nostalgia for an American “uncorrupted” by industrialization and urbanization.
To build an understanding of how paintings of American landscapes helped Americans define the character of their new nation, ask students to compare the mood created in Cole’s paintings with the following excerpt from Alexis de Tocqueville’s influential book Democracy in America (1835/1840), in which de Tocqueville described America’s exceptional characteristics:
It is this consciousness of destruction, this arrière-pensée of quick and inevitable change, that gives, we feel, so peculiar a character and such a touching beauty to the solitudes of America. One sees them with a melancholy pleasure; one is in some sort of hurry to admire them. Thoughts of the savage, natural grandeur that is going to come to an end become mingled with splendid anticipations of the triumphant march of civilization. One feels proud to be a man, and yet at the same time one experiences I cannot say what bitter regret at the power that God has granted us over nature.
Landscape painting did not become a major source of interest to American artists until the early 1800s—in Cole’s time, painters of landscapes were just beginning to find an audience for their worthy subject. Ask students to considering this information, as well as the following excerpt from Cole’s “Essay on American Scenery.” How does this help us understand Cole’s sense of his own role as an artist? What does it contribute to an interpretation of the painting?
There are those who regret that with the improvements of cultivation, the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away; for those scenes from which the hand of nature has never been lifted, affect the mind with a more deep toned emotion than aught which the hand of man has touched.
Having spent the first 17 years of his life in the industrialized county of Lancashire, England, Cole was keenly aware of the effects of the Industrial Revolution. In America, he took trips to the Catskills of New York and the White Mountains of New Hampshire as he sought to capture areas of wilderness before they were marked by human presence. To acknowledge the constantly changing landscape of our world, have students draw or paint part of their own town as it might have looked 200 years ago.
In 1830, just two years after this painting was finished, President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which paved the way for the forcible relocation of thousands of Native Americans from the southeast United States. When Cole painted this scene, indigenous people were also being driven from the northeast, yet Cole included an image of a Native American, perhaps as a symbol of what was lost in the Industrial Revolution and European settlement. Ask students to research the history of an indigenous tribe in their geographical area and write about what happened to that tribe during and after European settlement, and what that tribe’s presence is today.
Thomas Cole. “Essay on American Scenery,” in American Monthly Magazine 1 (January 1836). (http://www.tc.umn.edu/~danp/rhet8520/winter99/cole.html).
Angela Miller. “Thomas Cole and Jacksonian America: The Course of Empire as Political Allegory,” in Critical Issues in American Art, edited by Mary Ann Calo. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.
Christine Stansell and Sean Wilentz. “Cole’s America,” in Thomas Cole: Landscape into History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.