Thomas Cole. A Description of his Life and his Series of Paintings "The Course of Empire" and "The Voyage of Life"

Seminar Paper, 2016

14 Pages, Grade: 2

Andrea Sido (Author)



1. Biography

2. Series of paintings
2.1. The Course of Empire (1833-1836)
2.2. The Voyage of Life

3. Hudson River School

4. Bibliography

1. Biography

Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848) was born at Bolton-le-Moor in Lancashire, England on the 1st of February, 1801 as an only son of James and Mary Cole. In 1818 he immigrated to America with his parents and they settled first in Philadelphia before travelling to Ohio.[1] Growing up, he was apprenticed to a wood engraver, and learned the basics of painting from Stein, who was a wandering portrait painter. He made his first attempts at landscape painting after having learned the essentials of oil painting from him.[2] Cole was interested and successful in portrait paintings, but later on his interest shifted to outdoor scenes and landscapes. At the age of 22 he moved to Pittsburgh with his family and one year later to Philadelphia. In Pittsburgh he began to make detailed and systematic studies of the city’s highly picturesque scenery, establishing a procedure of painstakingly detailed drawing that became the foundation of his landscape painting. In Philadelphia he studied the landscapes of Thomas Doughty and Thomas Birch, which were exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy. In 1825, he moved to New York to reunite with his family who had moved there before. While he was in New York, Cole sold several of his paintings to George W. Bryen, who financed his trip up to the Hudson River in the summer of 1825. Sketching from nature and documenting the landscape Cole produced various paintings: Coldspring, The Ruins of Fort Putnam, The Catskill Mountain House and Kaaterskill Falls.[3] On his return to New York he placed three canvas landscape paintings in a bookstore window, which attracted the attention of the city’s most important artists and patrons, including John Trumbull, William Dunlap and Asher B. Durand.[4] Trumbull recognized in Cole’s paintings the perception of wildness inherent in American scenery that landscape painters had theretofore ignored; he brought the young artist to the attention of various patrons, who began buying his work.[5] Dunlap publicized the discovery of the new talent. From then on, his future as landscape painter was assured. He became active in the arts community and then, in 1826 one of a founding member of the new National Academy of Design and was generally recognized as America’s leading landscape painter.[6] Cole traveled throughout the Northeast, studying and sketching dramatic landscapes, such as Niagara Falls, capturing the wildness of places like the White Mountains and Adirondacks. In winter, he returned to his studio in Catskill, New York, where he used his sketches and preliminary drawings to compose and paint large canvases.[7] Cole’s ambition was to create a “higher style of landscape” that could express moral and religious meanings. His first major efforts in this vein created mixed reviews, so he decided to study and travel in Europe. By 1829 he took the Grand Tour of Europe. (A journey to different countries of Europe; was part of the education of wealthy young people, especially from Britain and the U.S. They spent two to four years in Europe in an effort to broaden their horizons and learn more about language, architecture, culture, etc.[8] ). He especially visited Italy, where he stayed in 1831-32, went to Florence, Rome and Naples. Thereafter he painted many Italian subjects, e.g. View near Tivoli (Morning) in 1832. In 1832 he also mounted an exhibition of his European paintings in New York, which aroused considerable public interest. In this time Cole began his relationship with Luman Reed, a successful merchant who became Cole’s patron. For Reed, Cole produced one of his best-known and most popular series of paintings, known as The Course of Empire (1834–36), five pictures dramatizing the rise and fall of an ancient classical state.[9] In November 1836 Cole married Maria Bartow; they settled in Catskill and had five children.[10] The artist’s marriage lead to an increasing religious piety, which manifested itself in The Voyage of Life (1840), a four-part series of paintings representing the human passage through life to eternal reward. In 1841 Cole went to Europe again; he stayed in London for a number of days, before travelling to France, Switzerland and finally Rome. In the spring of 1842 he visited Sicily where he toured Mount Etna, which he illustrated in several pictures, including Mount Etna (1842) and later Mount Etna from Taormina (1843). Finally he traveled back to the United States taking several ideas for paintings inspired by the Italian landscape with him, which he would illustrate in his The Temple of Segesta (1843) and Roman Compagna (1843). After his return he lived and worked in Catskill and continued to produce American and foreign landscape subjects. In 1844 he accepted Frederic Edwin Church as a pupil, who studied with him until 1846 and went on to become the most renowned exponent of the generation that followed Cole. In his late years, Cole’s works became increasingly centered on religion and he joined the Episcopal Church. In 1848 Cole was struck by a debilitating disease which left him with a lung infection that soon proved to be fatal. He died at the early age of forty-seven and was buried at Thomson Street Cemetery, in Catskill. Cole felt it was his duty as an artist, to depict the nature. His works influenced numerous younger painters.[11]

2. Series of paintings

2.1. The Course of Empire (1833-1836)

The Course of Empire is a five-part series of paintings, which was painted between 1833 and 1836. Thomas Cole achieved with these paintings what he described as a “higher style of landscape”, suffused with historical associations, moralistic narrative and what Cole felt were universal truths about mankind and his relationship with the natural word. In a letter to his patron Luman Reed, Cole wrote of an idea for his large-scale allegorical series:

“A series of pictures might be painted that should illustrate the History of a natural scene, as well as be an Epitome of Man – showing the natural changes of Landscape and those effected by man in his progress from Barbarism to Civilization, to Luxury, the Vicious state or state of destruction and to the state of Ruin and Desolation”[12]

The first painting of this series is The Savage State, oil on canvas painting. It (39 ½ x 63 ½ in) was painted in 1834 and is shown in the New-York Historical Society Museum. The first painting represents the savage state; it is a view of the wilderness and shows a valley from the shore opposite a crag with a boulder on its top. In the back of the painting the sun is rising from the sea and the clouds of night are disappearing behind the mountains. This mountain appears in every painting of the series The Course of Empire. In this first picture, it is located in the centre of the composition. The clouds surrounding it are storm clouds, which could be a symbol for the savageness of nature. On the top of the mountain Cole has placed a huge boulder; this may be an illusion to the fact that humans are small and week compared to the force of nature. At the bottom of the painting there is a deer, which has been injured by the arrows of the hunter standing on the left side. This scene indicates that the humans are trying to dominate the nature. On the right side of the deer the painting shows a ghostly figure of a hunter which is a pentimento (from the Italian word pentirsi, meaning “to represent”). This form reveals traces of a previous idea about the placement of figures in The Savage State. Cole changed his mind about this figure and painted it over, but now that the pigments have aged, evidence of the artist's original thoughts about the composition reappears. On the right-hand side of the painting, there is an encampment with teepees, and people are dancing around a fire. In the river (downside, right side) primitive canoes are painted as a symbol for the beginning of transportation and exploration.


[1] ““ last modified July 4, 2016,

[2] “The Artchive” last modified July 4, 2016,

[3] “Totally History” last modified July 4, 2016,

[4] “Encyclopedia of Art” last modified July 4, 2016,

[5] “The Met” last modified July 4, 2016,

[6] “The Archive” last modified July 4, 2016,

[7] “” last modified July 4, 2016,

[8] “Merriam-Webster” last modified July 4, 2016,

[9] “The Met” last modified July 4, 2016,

[10] “” last modified July 4, 2016,

[11] “Totally History” last modified July 5, 2016,

[12] “Explore Thomas Cole” last modified July 10, 2016,

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Thomas Cole. A Description of his Life and his Series of Paintings "The Course of Empire" and "The Voyage of Life"
University of Vienna
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thomas, cole, description, life, series, course, empire, voyage
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Andrea Sido (Author), 2016, Thomas Cole. A Description of his Life and his Series of Paintings "The Course of Empire" and "The Voyage of Life", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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