1. Forces and Philosophies behind the Movement:
At the dawn of the 19th century, everything in America was new. Towns were new. Government was EarnWithSocial.new. Infrastructure was new. Even its spirit was new. And a new breed of painters was about to capture it on canvas. But their origin, like many of the country’s aspects, can be traced across the Atlantic to Europe-in this case, to the Romanticism movement.
Spreading across the continent during the previous century, and serving as the artistic core of poetry, painting, and even architecture, it replaced the traditionally restrictive, intellectual and factual approach to life with one of contemplation and expression, particularly of its awe-inspiring features, such as its vast forests and limitless skies. These, according to this philosophy, could only have been created by a Source far greater than the contemplator, and it took his limitless soul to be able to connect with it. Finite intellectual understanding, it was concluded, was no opponent for infinite creations.
Artistic works served as expressions of what may have been man’s ascent back to his original, enlightened origins-namely, that he had begun to (re)realize that he was a combination of physical, intellectual, and emotional properties, and it was only the latter which had enabled him to replace reason with emotion, gaining a new relationship with nature in the process.
Like a series of lights re-lit after a long, dark winter, this philosophy spread across Europe, each of its countries beginning to flicker as they focused on their natural beauty.
Art, traditionally following form, now did the opposite. Instead of reflecting a formal English garden, for instance, paintings now increasingly represented informal nature, which was seldom so meticulously patterned and planned-at least not by man. Scenes appearing on canvases were representations–not artificial, idealized images-and with them came acknowledgment and acceptance of what “is” and not what “should be.”
A counterforce, opposing order, balance, and symmetry, arose.
Society, again only subconsciously aware of its impinging enlightenment, evolved, as expressed by its shifting beliefs. Medievalists, for example, had viewed nature as sinful, seeped with Christianity-incompatible pagan gods, while Classicists felt that, if nature were left untamed, that it would remain chaotic. As a result, it could only be rearranged into proper order by the touch of man. But Romanticists saw it as a natural expression of faultless beauty to be enjoyed and appreciated, and man’s hand only marred, spoiled, or uncreated it.
Although these forces and philosophies ultimately floated across the Atlantic, there were several fundamental differences to the movement, which began to take root in North America. The European philosophy was, first and foremost, a revolt against classical traditions and their established beliefs. Because the New World had no formal school of arts–whether they be of the painting, prose, or poetry genres–before the dawn of the 19th century, there was no need for such a counter-movement. Traditional portraiture constituted the primary artistic legacy of the latter, 18th- century Colonial period. That few examples of landscape painting remain from this era indicates that little value had been attached to it.
But 1800 would serve as both the threshold to the new century and to its shifting values. Having already established its foundation of independence and government, America now turned its attention to its aesthetic side, establishing pride in the natural beauty its new shores had provided. The principle medium through which this pride was expressed was art.
Like a collective canvas waiting for a brush, the Hudson Valley posed for painters, enticing them with its lush river, forest, and mountain vistas, and providing the stage where that beauty could be captured, expressed, and interpreted. The stage, in essence, served as the incubator of an American painting movement.
The Catskill Mountain House, the country’s first resort, opened in 1824. Along with the Hudson River-dotted summer retreats, it attracted tourists and travelers, who were spurred into exploring the area by a flourishing economy. Since America’s still budding, nature-expressing trend arose in original form as Romanticism in Europe, it is not surprising that it was carried across the ocean by a European, who became one of the earliest venturers to be lured here by its pristine beauty. His name was Thomas Cole.
2. Thomas Cole:
Born in Bolton-le-Moor, Lancashire, England, on February 1, 1801, Thomas Cole served as an engineering apprentice in a calico print factory before relocating to Philadelphia as a young artist. Despite having subsequently embarked on an overland wagon journey to Steubenville, Ohio, with his family, he quickly aborted the attempt, returning to pursue a career as a textile print designer. It provided an initial, albeit tenuous, connection to art.