Thomas Cole Essay On American Scenery 1835

Essay on American Scenery
American Monthly Magazine 1 (January 1836)
Thomas Cole

[I. Introduction]

The essay, which is here offered, is a mere sketch of an almost illimitable subject--American Scenery; and in selecting the theme the writer placed more confidence in its overflowing richness, than in his own capacity for treating it in a manner worthy of its vastness and importance.

It is a subject that to every American ought to be of surpassing interest; for, whether he beholds the Hudson mingling waters with the Atlantic--explores the central wilds of this vast continent, or stands on the margin of the distant Oregon, he is still in the midst of American scenery--it is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity--all are his; and how undeserving of such a birthright, if he can turn towards it an unobserving eye, an unaffected heart!

Before entering into the proposed subject, in which I shall treat more particularly of the scenery of the Northern and Eastern States, I shall be excused for saying a few words on the advantages of cultivating a taste for scenery, and for exclaiming against the apathy with which the beauties of external nature are regarded by the great mass, even of our refined community.

[1. The Contemplation of Scenery as a Source of Delight and Improvement]

It is generally admitted that the liberal arts tend to soften our manners; but they do more--they carry with them the power to mend our hearts.

Poetry and Painting sublime and purify thought, by grasping the past, the present, and the future--they give the mind a foretaste of its immortality, and thus prepare it for performing an exalted part amid the realities of life. And rural nature is full of the same quickening spirit--it is, in fact, the exhaustless mine from which the poet and the painter have brought such wondrous treasures--an unfailing fountain of intellectual enjoyment, where all may drink, and be awakened to a deeper feeling of the works of genius, and a keener perception of the beauty of our existence. For those whose days are all consumed in the low pursuits of avarice, or the gaudy frivolities of fashion, unobservant of nature's loveliness, are unconscious of the harmony of creation--

Heaven's roof to them Is but a painted ceiling hung with lamps; No more--that lights them to their purposes-- They wander 'loose about;' they nothing see, Themselves except, and creatures like themselves, Short lived, short sighted.

What to them is the page of the poet where he describes or personifies the skies, the mountains, or the streams, if those objects themselves have never awakened observation or excited pleasure? What to them is the wild Salvator Rosa, or the aerial Claude Lorrain?

There is in the human mind an almost inseparable connection between the beautiful and the good, so that if we contemplate the one the other seems present; and an excellent author has said, "it is difficult to look at any objects with pleasure--unless where it arises from brutal and tumultuous emotions--without feeling that disposition of mind which tends towards kindness and benevolence; and surely, whatever creates such a disposition, by increasing our pleasures and enjoyments, cannot be too much cultivated."

It would seem unnecessary to those who can see and feel, for me to expatiate on the loveliness of verdant fields, the sublimity of lofty mountains, or the varied magnificence of the sky; but that the number of those who seek enjoyment in such sources is comparatively small. From the indifference with which the multitude regard the beauties of nature, it might be inferred that she had been unnecessarily lavish in adorning this world for beings who take no pleasure in its adornment. Who in grovelling pursuits forget their glorious heritage. Why was the earth made so beautiful, or the sun so clad in glory at his rising and setting, when all might be unrobed of beauty without affecting the insensate multitude, so they can be "lighted to their purposes?"

It has not been in vain--the good, the enlightened of all ages and nations, have found pleasure and consolation in the beauty of the rural earth. Prophets of old retired into the solitudes of nature to wait the inspiration of heaven. It was on that Elijah witnessed the mighty wind, the earthquake, and the fire; and heard the "still small voice"--that voice is YET heard among the mountains! preached in the desert;--the wilderness is YET a fitting place to speak of God. The solitary Anchorites of Syria and , though ignorant that the busy world is man's noblest sphere of usefulness, well knew how congenial to religious musings are the pathless solitudes.

He who looks on nature with a "loving eye," cannot move from his dwelling without the salutation of beauty; even in the city the deep blue sky and the drifting clouds appeal to him. And if to escape its turmoil--if only to obtain a free horizon, land and water in the play of light and shadow yields delight--let him be transported to those favored regions, where the features of the earth are more varied, or yet add the sunset, that wreath of glory daily bound around the world, and he, indeed, drinks from pleasure's purest cup. The delight such a man experiences is not merely sensual, or selfish, that passes with the occasion leaving no trace behind; but in gazing on the pure creations of the Almighty, he feels a calm religious tone steal through his mind, and when he has turned to mingle with his fellow men, the chords which have been struck in that sweet communion cease not to vibrate.

In what has been said I have alluded to wild and uncultivated scenery; but the cultivated must not be forgotten, for it is still more important to man in his social capacity--necessarily bringing him in contact with the cultured; it encompasses our homes, and, though devoid of the stern sublimity of the wild, its quieter spirit steals tenderly into our bosoms mingled with a thousand domestic affections and heart-touching associations--human hands have wrought, and human deeds hallowed all around.

And it is here that taste, which is the perception of the beautiful, and the knowledge of the principles on which nature works, can be applied, and our dwelling-places made fitting for refined and intellectual beings.

[2. The Advantages of Cultivating a Taste for Scenery]

If, then, it is indeed true that the contemplation of scenery can be so abundant a source of delight and improvement, a taste for it is certainly worthy of particular cultivation; for the capacity for enjoyment increases with the knowledge of the true means of obtaining it.

In this age, when a meager utilitarianism seems ready to absorb every feeling and sentiment, and what is sometimes called improvement in its march makes us fear that the bright and tender flowers of the imagination shall all be crushed beneath its iron tramp, it would be well to cultivate the oasis that yet remains to us, and thus preserve the germs of a future and a purer system. And now, when the sway of fashion is extending widely over society--poisoning the healthful streams of true refinement, and turning men from the love of simplicity and beauty, to a senseless idolatry of their own follies--to lead them gently into the pleasant paths of Taste would be an object worthy of the highest efforts of genius and benevolence. The spirit of our society is to contrive but not to enjoy--toiling to produce more toil-accumulating in order to aggrandize. The pleasures of the imagination, among which the love of scenery holds a conspicuous place, will alone temper the harshness of such a state; and, like the atmosphere that softens the most rugged forms of the landscape, cast a veil of tender beauty over the asperities of life.

Did our limits permit I would endeavor more fully to show how necessary to the complete appreciation of the Fine Arts is the study of scenery, and how conducive to our happiness and well-being is that study and those arts; but I must now proceed to the proposed subject of this essay--American Scenery!

[II. The Elements of American Scenery]

There are those who through ignorance or prejudice strive to maintain that American scenery possesses little that is interesting or truly beautiful--that it is rude without picturesqueness, and monotonous without sublimity--that being destitute of those vestiges of antiquity, whose associations so strongly affect the mind, it may not be compared with European scenery. But from whom do these opinions come? From those who have read of European scenery, of Grecian mountains, and Italian skies, and never troubled themselves to look at their own; and from those travelled ones whose eyes were never opened to the beauties of nature until they beheld foreign lands, and when those lands faded from the sight were again closed and forever; disdaining to destroy their trans-atlantic impressions by the observation of the less fashionable and unfamed American scenery. Let such persons shut themselves up in their narrow shell of prejudice--I hope they are few,--and the community increasing in intelligence, will know better how to appreciate the treasures of their own country.

I am by no means desirous of lessening in your estimation the glorious scenes of the old world--that ground which has been the great theater of human events--those mountains, woods, and streams, made sacred in our minds by heroic deeds and immortal song--over which time and genius have suspended an imperishable halo. No! But I would have it remembered that nature has shed over this land beauty and magnificence, and although the character of its scenery may differ from the old world's, yet inferiority must not therefore be inferred; for though American scenery is destitute of many of those circumstances that give value to the European, still it has features, and glorious ones, unknown to Europe.

[1. Wildness]

A very few generations have passed away since this vast tract of the American continent, now the United States, rested in the shadow of primeval forests, whose gloom was peopled by savage beasts, and scarcely less savage men; or lay in those wide grassy plains called prairies--

The Gardens of the Desert, these The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful.

And, although an enlightened and increasing people have broken in upon the solitude, and with activity and power wrought changes that seem magical, yet the most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive, characteristic of American scenery is its wildness.

It is the most distinctive, because in civilized Europe the primitive features of scenery have long since been destroyed or modified--the extensive forests that once overshadowed a great part of it have been felled--rugged mountains have been smoothed, and impetuous rivers turned from their courses to accommodate the tastes and necessities of a dense population--the once tangled wood is now a grassy lawn; the turbulent brook a navigable stream--crags that could not be removed have been crowned with towers, and the rudest valleys tamed by the plough.

And to this cultivated state our western world is fast approaching; but nature is still predominant, and there are those who regret that with the improvements of cultivation the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away: for those scenes of solitude 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. Amid them the consequent associations are of God the creator--they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things.

[2. Mountains]

As mountains are the most conspicuous objects in landscape, they will take the precedence in what I may say on the elements of American scenery.

It is true that in the eastern part of this continent there are no mountains that vie in altitude with the snow-crowned Alps--that the Alleghanies and the Catskills are in no point higher than five thousand feet; but this is no inconsiderable height; Snowdon in Wales, and Ben-Nevis in Scotland, are not more lofty; and in New Hampshire, which has been called the Switzerland of the United States, the White Mountains almost pierce the region of perpetual snow. The Alleghanies are in general heavy in form; but the Catskills, although not broken into abrupt angles like the most picturesque mountains of , have varied, undulating, and exceedingly beautiful outlines--they heave from the valley of the like the subsiding billows of the ocean after a storm.

But in the mountains of New Hampshire there is a union of the picturesque, the sublime, and the magnificent; there the bare peaks of granite, broken and desolate, cradle the clouds; while the vallies and broad bases of the mountains rest under the shadow of noble and varied forests; and the traveller who passes the Sandwich range on his way to the White Mountains, of which it is a spur, cannot but acknowledge, that although in some regions of the globe nature has wrought on a more stupendous scale, yet she has nowhere so completely married together grandeur and loveliness--there he sees the sublime melting into the beautiful, the savage tempered by the magnificent.

[3. Water]

I will now speak of another component of scenery, without which every landscape is defective--it is water. Like the eye in the human countenance, it is a most expressive feature: in the unrippled lake, which mirrors all surrounding objects, we have the expression of tranquillity and peace--in the rapid stream, the headlong cataract, that of turbulence and impetuosity.

[a. Lakes]

In this great element of scenery, what land is so rich? I would not speak of the , which are in fact inland seas--possessing some of the attributes of the ocean, though destitute of its sublimity; but of those smaller lakes, such as , Champlain, Winnipisiogee, Otsego, Seneca, and a hundred others, that stud like gems the bosom of this country. There is one delightful quality in nearly all these lakes--the purity and transparency of the water. In speaking of scenery it might seem unnecessary to mention this; but independent of the pleasure that we all have in beholding pure water, it is a circumstance which contributes greatly to the beauty of landscape; for the reflections of surrounding objects, trees, mountains, sky, are most perfect in the clearest water; and the most perfect is the most beautiful.

I would not be understood that these lakes are always tranquil; but that tranquillity is their great characteristic. There are times when they take a far different expression; but in scenes like these the richest chords are those struck by the gentler hand of nature.

[b. Waterfalls]

And now I must turn to another of the beautifiers of the earth--the Waterfall; which in the same object at once presents to the mind the beautiful, but apparently incongruous idea, of fixedness and motion--a single existence in which we perceive unceasing change and everlasting duration. The waterfall may be called the voice of the landscape, for, unlike the rocks and woods which utter sounds as the passive instruments played on by the elements, the waterfall strikes its own chords, and rocks and mountains re-echo in rich unison. And this is a land abounding in cataracts; in these Northern States where shall we turn and not find them? Have we not Kaaterskill, , the Flume, the , stupendous , and a hundred others named and nameless ones, whose exceeding beauty must be acknowledged when the hand of taste shall point them out?

In the Kaaterskill we have a stream, diminutive indeed, but throwing itself headlong over a fearful precipice into a deep gorge of the densely wooded mountains--and possessing a singular feature in the vast arched cave that extends beneath and behind the cataract. At there is a chain of waterfalls of remarkable beauty, where the foaming waters, shadowed by steep cliffs, break over rocks of architectural formation, and tangled and picturesque trees mantle abrupt precipices, which it would be easy to imagine crumbling and "time disparting towers."

And ! that wonder of the world!--where the sublime and beautiful are bound together in an indissoluble chain. In gazing on it we feel as though a great void had been filled in our minds--our conceptions expand--we become a part of what we behold! At our feet the floods of a thousand rivers are poured out--the contents of vast inland seas. In its volume we conceive immensity; in its course, everlasting duration; in its impetuosity, uncontrollable power. These are the elements of its sublimity. Its beauty is garlanded around in the varied hues of the water, in the spray that ascends the sky, and in that unrivalled bow which forms a complete cincture round the unresting floods.

[c. Rivers]

The river scenery of the is a rich and boundless theme. The for natural magnificence is unsurpassed. What can be more beautiful than the lake-like expanses of Tapaan and Haverstraw, as seen from the rich orchards of the surrounding hills? hills that have a legend, which has been so sweetly and admirably told that it shall not perish but with the language of the land. What can be more imposing than the precipitous ; whose dark foundations have been rent to make a passage for the deep-flowing river? And, ascending still, where can be found scenes more enchanting? The lofty Catskills stand afar off-the green hills gently rising from the flood, recede like steps by which we may ascend to a great temple, whose pillars are those everlasting hills, and whose dome is the blue boundless vault of heaven.

The has its castled crags, its vine-clad hills, and ancient villages; the has its wooded mountains, its rugged precipices, its green undulating shores--a natural majesty, and an unbounded capacity for improvement by art. Its shores are not besprinkled with venerated ruins, or the palaces of princes; but there are flourishing towns, and neat villas, and the hand of taste has already been at work. Without any great stretch of the imagination we may anticipate the time when the ample waters shall reflect temple, and tower, and dome, in every variety of picturesqueness and magnificence.

[4. Forests]

In the scenery of the we have that which occupies the greatest space, and is not the least remarkable; being primitive, it differs widely from the European. In the American forest we find trees in every stage of vegetable life and decay--the slender sapling rises in the shadow of the lofty tree, and the giant in his prime stands by the hoary patriarch of the wood--on the ground lie prostrate decaying ranks that once waved their verdant heads in the sun and wind. These are circumstances productive of great variety and picturesqueness--green umbrageous masses--lofty and scathed trunks--contorted branches thrust athwart the sky--the mouldering dead below, shrouded in moss of every hue and texture, from richer combinations than can be found in the trimmed and planted grove. It is true that the thinned and cultivated wood offers less obstruction to the feet, and the trees throw out their branches more horizontally, and are consequently more umbrageous when taken singly; but the true lover of the picturesque is seldom fatigued--and trees that grow widely apart are often heavy in form, and resemble each other too much for picturesqueness. Trees are like men, differing widely in character; in sheltered spots, or under the influence of culture, they show few contrasting points; peculiarities are pruned and trained away, until there is a general resemblance. But in exposed situations, wild and uncultivated, battling with the elements and with one another for the possession of a morsel of soil, or a favoring rock to which they may cling--they exhibit striking peculiarities, and sometimes grand originality.

For variety, the American forest is unrivalled: in some districts are found oaks, elms, birches, beeches, planes, pines, hemlocks, and many other kinds of trees, commingled--clothing the hills with every tint of green, and every variety of light and shade.


There is one season when the American forest surpasses all the world in gorgeousness--that is the autumnal;--then every hill and dale is riant in the luxury of color--every hue is there, from the liveliest green to deepest purple from the most golden yellow to the intensest crimson. The artist looks despairingly upon the glowing landscape, and in the old world his truest imitations of the American forest, at this season, are called falsely bright, and scenes in .

[5. Sky]

The sky will next demand our attention. The soul of all scenery, in it are the fountains of light, and shade, and color. Whatever expression the sky takes, the features of the landscape are affected in unison, whether it be the serenity of the summer's blue, or the dark tumult of the storm. It is the sky that makes the earth so lovely at sunrise, and so splendid at sunset. In the one it breathes over the earth the crystal-like ether, in the other liquid gold. The climate of a great part of the is subject to great vicissitudes, and we complain; but nature offers a compensation. These very vicissitudes are the abundant sources of beauty--as we have the temperature of every clime, so have we the skies--we have the blue unsearchable depths of the northern sky--we have the upheaped thunder-clouds of the , fraught with gorgeousness and sublimity--we have the silver haze of , and the golden atmosphere of . And if he who has travelled and observed the skies of other climes will spend a few months on the banks of the , he must be constrained to acknowledge that for variety and magnificence American skies are unsurpassed. Italian skies have been lauded by every tongue, and sung by every poet, and who will deny their wonderful beauty? At sunset the serene arch is filled with alchemy that transmutes mountains, and streams, and temples, into living gold.

But the American summer never passes without many sunsets that might vie with the Italian, and many still more gorgeous--that seem peculiar to this clime.

[III. The Want of Associations]

I will now venture a few remarks on what has been considered a grand defect in American scenery--the want of associations, such as arise amid the scenes of the old world.

We have many a spot as umbrageous as Vallombrosa, and as picturesque as the solitudes of Vaucluse; but Milton and Petrarch have not hallowed them by their footsteps and immortal verse. He who stands on Mont Albano and looks down on ancient Rome, has his mind peopled with the gigantic associations of the storied past; but he who stands on the mounds of the West, the most venerable remains of American antiquity, may experience the emotion of the sublime, but it is the sublimity of a shoreless ocean un-islanded by the recorded deeds of man.

Yet American scenes are not destitute of historical and legendary associations--the great struggle for freedom has sanctified many a spot, and many a mountain, stream, and rock has its legend, worthy of poet's pen or the painter's pencil. But American associations are not so much of the past as of the present and the future. Seated on a pleasant knoll, look down into the bosom of that secluded valley, begin with wooded hills--through those enamelled meadows and wide waving fields of grain, a silver stream winds lingeringly along--here, seeking the green shade of trees--there, glancing in the sunshine: on its banks are rural dwellings shaded by elms and garlanded by flowers--from yonder dark mass of foliage the village spire beams like a star. You see no ruined tower to tell of outrage--no gorgeous temple to speak of ostentation; but freedom's offspring--peace, security, and happiness, dwell there, the spirits of the scene. On the margin of that gentle river the village girls may ramble unmolested--and the glad school-boy, with hook and line, pass his bright holiday--those neat dwellings, unpretending to magnificence, are the abodes of plenty, virtue, and refinement. And in looking over the yet uncultivated scene, the mind's eye may see far into futurity. Where the wolf roams, the plough shall glisten; on the gray crag shall rise temple and tower--mighty deeds shall be done in the now pathless wilderness; and poets yet unborn shall sanctify the soil.

[IV. Conclusion]

[1. The Destruction of Beautiful Landscapes]

It was my intention to attempt a description of several districts remarkable for their picturesqueness and truly American character; but I fear to trespass longer on your time and patience. Yet I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away--the ravages of the axe are daily increasing--the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation. The wayside is becoming shadeless, and another generation will behold spots, now rife with beauty, desecrated by what is called improvement; which, as yet, generally destroys Nature's beauty without substituting that of Art. This is a regret rather than a complaint; such is the road society has to travel; it may lead to refinement in the end, but the traveller who sees the place of rest close at hand, dislikes the road that has so many unnecessary windings.

[2. We Are Still in ]

I will now conclude, in the hope that, though feebly urged, the importance of cultivating a taste for scenery will not be forgotten. Nature has spread for us a rich and delightful banquet. Shall we turn from it? We are still in ; the wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly. We should not allow the poet's words to be applicable to us--

Deep in rich pasture do thy flocks complain? Not so; but to their master is denied To share the sweet serene.

May we at times turn from the ordinary pursuits of life to the pure enjoyment of rural nature; which is in the soul like a fountain of cool waters to the way-worn traveller; and let us

Learn The laws by which the Eternal doth sublime And sanctify his works, that we may see The hidden glory veiled from vulgar eyes.

MLA Citation: Cole, Thomas. "Essay on American Scenery". American Monthly Magazine 1, (January 1836) 1-12

Thomas Cole


Quantity:9 boxes (3.0 cubic ft.)
Access:Open to research.
Sketchbook stored in vault. Viewing the original requires making special arrangements through Manuscripts and Special Collections.
Alternative Formats:Also available on microfilm, MB/FM,759.147,C689,200-5109
Acquisition:Received from Florence Cole Vincent, Thomas Cole's granddaughter, in 1935
Processed By:Originally processed in 1935; reprocessed by Vicki Weiss, Archivist, November 1993, revised March 2011

View catalog record

Selected items from the Thomas Cole Collection (including the sketchbook) have been digitized.

Biographical Note:

Thomas Cole was born in Bolton-le-Moor, Lancashire, England, February 1, 1801. His father, a woolen manufacturer, moved the family to Philadelphia in 1819, where he opened a dry-goods shop while Thomas took up wood-engraving which he had already practiced at Liverpool. The family soon moved to Steubenville, Ohio, where the father set up a wallpaper factory; Thomas remained in Philadelphia.

Thomas rejoined his family in 1820, aiding his father in the manufacture of wallpaper. His chance meeting with an itinerant portrait painter named Stein resulted in his decision to become an artist. Stein taught him the rudiments of mixing color and lent him a treatise on the theory of color.

Since the wallpaper business was losing money, his father decided to move to Pittsburgh in 1823. Thomas again remained behind, painting, but soon joined his family to help in his father's newest venture: manufacturing floor coverings. He next spent some months in Philadelphia and then rejoined his family who had moved to New York City.

A New York merchant, George W. Bruen, who had admired some of Cole's studio paintings, paid his steamboat fare up the river to explore the Catskills. Cole took the three oil paintings that resulted from this trip to a frame shop on Broadway in New York City where they were seen by Col. John Trumbull, president of the American Academy of Fine Arts and, at the time, one of the most influential men in New York art circles. Trumbull introduced Cole's work to collectors and artists alike and from then on his fame spread and the Hudson River School of landscape painting was launched.

Over the next few years many weeks were spent in travel and the exploration of scenery in the Catskills and the White Mountains.

In 1826 Cole was invited to become a founder of the National Academy of Design.

In June 1829 he sailed for England, where he stayed for two years; he toured France and Italy before returning to New York in November 1832. In November 1836 Cole married Maria Bartow and settled at Catskill.

His two most famous works, "The Course of Empire" and "The Voyage of Life," were commissioned by Luman Reed and Samuel Ward, respectively, both of whom died before the works were completed.

Of "The Course of Empire," James Fenimore Cooper said it was "the work of the highest genius this country has ever produced." The series was exhibited in the fall of 1836 and then was stored until it was donated to the New-York Historical Society in 1858.

Cole again visited Europe in 1841-1842, the Adirondacks in 1846 and Niagara Falls in 1847. A week after his 47th birthday he died of a virulent pneumonia.

Scope and Content Note:

The collection consists of eight boxes of manuscripts generated by or related to Thomas Cole, an artist, poet and founder of the Hudson River School style of landscape painting. The papers cover the period ca.1818-1964, with the bulk of the papers covering the years 1821-1848. They are divided into five series.

A majority of the material was collected by Cole's daughter and granddaughter, Mrs. Florence Cole Vincent, from whom the collection was received by the New York State Library in 1935.

The collection covers both his personal and public life.

Included are letters written by and to Cole, journals, notebooks, essay and lecture notes, verse and poetry, personal accounting records, and newspaper articles by and about Cole and his work. Also included are an 1827 sketchbook, miscellaneous sketches, exhibit registers and catalogs, and articles and catalogs from exhibits of his work after his death. The sketches include rough versions of typical Cole landscape paintings.

Cole made use of every scrap of paper for jotting down ideas for paintings, names of people who commissioned him to paint pictures, and ideas he encountered in his readings. Thus, the collection is a cornucopia of words and pictures.

Four finding aids created about 1935 facilitate access to the letters:

  1. Two name indexes of the people with whom Cole corresponded divided into the following sections: people who wrote to Cole and people to whom Cole wrote. Each name is followed by the date(s) of the letter(s) in the collection. These indexes are included at the end of this finding aid.
  2. A two-page unpublished list available at the repository of painters mentioned in letters to Thomas Cole, and
  3. A one-page unpublished list available at the repository of letters from other painters to Cole.

The collection has been microfilmed (MB/FM,759.197,C689,200-5109). In the microfilm copy, the folder list for Box 6 is: Folder 1, Bills, accounts, etc.; Folder 2, Notebooks, verse, etc.; Folder 3, Sketchbook; Folder 4, Sketches, and Folder 5, Exhibition catalogs. The accompanying finding aid does not replicate the order in which items were microfilmed.

Record Series:

The Thomas Cole Papers are comprised of the following six series and subseries:

  1. Correspondence, 1820-1855
  2. Letters by Thomas Cole, 1821-1847
  3. Letters to Thomas Cole, 1821-1848
  4. Letters of Robert Gilmor to and from Thomas Cole, 1826-1837
  5. Drafts and fragments of letters by Thomas Cole
  6. Family letters, 1820-1855 and n.d.
  7. Letters to persons other than Thomas Cole, n.d. and 1831, 1848-1863

The greater part of the collection consists of correspondence to and from Cole.

The three major subseries are Letters by Cole, 1821-1847 (Box 1), Letters to Cole, 1821-1848 (Boxes 2 and 3), and Family letters, 1820-1855 (Box 4). There are also several drafts and fragments of letters by Cole (Box 1, Folder 7).

A large part of the correspondence is with prominent American artists and writers.

There are several letters to and from Robert Gilmor, a Baltimore merchant and one of Cole's most influential patrons (Box 3, Folder 8), and several letters to Luman Reed and his heirs regarding the five paintings entitled "The Course of Empire."

The letters written by Cole contain comments on his travels, personal life and professional obligations.

One small noteworthy group of letters is Cole's correspondence with William Adams regarding the design of the state house in Ohio and how and when Cole would repay a monetary debt owed to Adams.

The letters written to Cole cover the same general topics as the letters written by Cole but also include letters of introduction written on Cole's behalf to people in Europe.

The letters regarding commissions for paintings sometimes include prose descriptions of the works and price quotes.

The family correspondence consists mainly of letters written by Cole to his wife, Maria. Also included are letters from Maria to her husband. Of particular interest are the two letters to Cole's son, Theddy (Theodore) by Frederic Church.

The letters to persons other than Cole (Box 3, Folder 9) include letters of condolence sent to Maria at the time of her husband's death.

A collection of drafts and fragments of letters by Cole (Box 1, Folder 7) indicates Cole often prepared at least one draft of a letter and then edited it before preparing the final copy. These fragments include prose descriptions of works contemplated or in progress, and references to commissions and invitations. Also in this folder are several autographs (Cole's and others), which were cut from letters, and small sketches (doodles?).

The correspondence is arranged chronologically. However, as mentioned above, there is an index of names of people to whom Cole wrote letters and an index of names of people who sent letters to Cole. The indexes are arranged alphabetically by surname and then chronologically by date on letter.

II. Writings, 1818-1848

A. Journals

The collection includes three bound journals, book signatures used as journals, and sheets of paper evidently cut from bound volumes (Box 4).

One of the signatures covers a trip from Philadelphia to Ohio in 1818(?) and may have been written by Thomas Cole's father.

One bound journal has scattered entries from November 5, 1834, through February 1, 1848. The other two bound journals contain accounts of Cole's trips to Europe in 1829 and 1841.

The other journals cover Cole's excursions in France and Italy (1831), including trips to Volterra (1831), Naples (1832), and Florence (1832), and his trip from Rome to Sicily in 1842. A final set of loose papers covers his trip to Mount Desert Island, Maine.

Cole also wrote a five-page autobiography about his time in Chillicothe, Ohio (1822) (Box 4, Folder 5).

B. Essay and lecture notes

The essay and lecture notes (Box 5) include drafts of Cole's "Essay on American Scenery" published in the January 1836 issue of American Monthly, "Sicilian Antiquities & Scenery" published as "Sicilian Scenery and Antiquities" in The Knickerbocker in February and March 1844, "Letter to the Publick on the Subject of Architecture," "Verdura, or a Tale of After Time," which contains his thoughts on what life would be like at the close of the 20th century, and two drafts of "The Death of Chocorua," a Native American legend he painted and entitled "Chocorua's Curse."

C. Verse and poetry, ca.1825-1847

The dates of the dated poems range from 1825 through 1847. Most of the poems deal with nature or life as an allegory although one poem is entitled "To Maria," one was written "On Hearing of the Death of Mr. Reed" and one is entitled "Written on My Birthday, Feb. 1st, 1830." Other titles are "Etna," "The March of Time," "Just Before Sunrise" and "Twilight." Included is a 20-sheet draft of "The Voyage of Life, Parts 1 and 2," which he apparently wrote to accompany the four-painting series of the same name. (Printed copies of this poem were used by Cole as scrap paper and can be found throughout the collection.)

D. Notebooks

Of the five notebooks in the collection, one contains prose descriptions of scenes in Italy, sketches of the scenes and notations on colors; a second notebook, entitled Catskilliana, contains heavily-edited prose sketches which, according to a note at the beginning, were "written in the evenings after the fatigues of the day," and three notebooks contain drafts of "The Spirits of the Wilderness: A Poem." Two of the three notebooks on the poem appear to be related (one is numbered 1 to 75; the second is numbered 76 to 91 and is dated April 27, 1837); the third notebook on the poem appears to be another draft. The two prose sketchbooks include Italian grammar exercises.

III. Sketches, exhibition catalogs and visitors' registers, calling cards

This series consists of an 1827 sketchbook, miscellaneous sketches, registers and catalogs from exhibits held throughout his career, and articles and catalogs from exhibits of his work after his death. Included are four sketches on commerce (Commerce Meeting the Nations, Commerce Rising, Commerce Reigning and Commerce Sleeping). The sketch of Commerce Sleeping is on the back of a letter from William Firth, dated August 28, 1842.

IV. Personal finance papers

The personal finance papers (Box 6, Folders 11 and 12) cover his personal life, including receipts for clothes bought, and professional expenses, such as receipts from New York City newspapers in which Cole advertised paintings and exhibits.

V. Newspapers and newspaper clippings

Included in the newspaper clippings are critiques and reviews of exhibits, an article on a hike to Kaaterskill Falls in The Catskill Messenger written by Cole and stories related to his death.

Box and Folder List:

  Letters by Thomas Cole
151841-1847 and n.d.
16Drafts and fragments of letters by Thomas Cole
  Letters to Thomas Cole
38Correspondence between Thomas Cole and Robert Gilmor, 1826-1837
39Letters to persons other than Thomas Cole, n.d., 1827, 1831, 1848-1863
  Cole family letters
441845-1855, n.d.
45Notes on Cole's life, Chillicothe journal
46Philadelphia to Ohio (1818?)
47France and Italy, 1831-1832
48Visit to Volterra, August 24, 1831
49Naples, May 14, 1832
410Journey from Rome to Florence, June 1832
411Journey from Rome to Sicily [1842]
412Trip to Mount Desert Island, Maine
4a1 Journal – "Thoughts and Occurrences" – November 1834 – February 1848
4a2Journal – London, 1829
4a3Journal, August 7, 1841 – November 28, [1841]; voyage by sea fro New York, and travels in Italy
51Essay on American Scenery
52Lecture [on Art]
53Letter to the Publick on the Subject of Architecture by Thomas Cole, n.d.
54The Bewilderment
55The Storm
56The Death of Chocorua
57Sicilian Antiquities and Scenery
58Verdura, the Clove Valley
59Influence of the Plastic Arts
510The Wanderer
511Untitled, unnumbered or fragments of essay and lecture notes
512Pictures in Churches
  Verse and poetry
513The Wild, 1826
514The Complaint of the Forest
515The Voyage of Life
516-18Verse and poetry
519Essay: Tribute to Cornelius VerByck
61Prose descriptions of ideas for paintings, including Course of Empire and Voyage of Life/Extracts copied from books and articles
62Lists (paintings, books, clothes, etc.)
63European trips (visa, bills, sketch of map of Sicily)
64Notes on art techniques
65Washington Capitol
66Henry Bayless (mortgage and apprenticeship)
68"Elijah of the Cave" (1858 sale)
69Ad for book by George Field; "Dr. Mahan's Speech" (16p.)
610Newspapers - Includes articles by and about Cole and his work; also obituaries about Cole; ca.1834-1964
611-12Bills, accounts, receipts, notes, including exhibition accounts
71Exhibition account books
72Exhibition catalogs, etc. (includes calling cards and admission ticket to showing of "The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds")
73Thomas Cole, Catskill, 1835. The Spirits of the Wilderness
74The Spirits of the Wilderness [pages 1-75]
75The Spirits of the Wilderness [pages 76+]/The Voyage of Life
81aSketches (The four sketches in this folder are mounted.)
83Observations from Nature
84Sketchbook dated 1827 - in VAULT

1935 Index to Letters from and to Thomas Cole

Letters from Thomas Cole

_____, Henry1845July 16
_____ (uncle)1842December 22
_____1838June 18
_____1845April 18
June 11
_____1847April 12
June 11
_____, Rev  
Adams, William A.1823February 8
 1833March 4
 1834April 7
April 23
August 5
September 15
 1835October 29
 1838May 3
May 26
June 18
September 10
September 25
October 31
November 27
 1839March 11
July 29
October 30
December 21
 1840February 26
August 4
 1841April 8
 1842August 26
Ainsley, Peter1847April 26
Alexander, Francis1834September 1
 1835March 26
Allen, George F.1846April 25
Bates, Joshua1837June 12
Blandy, B.1834May 14
Bloodgood, Simeon DeWitt1834September 23
 1835October 26
December 21
 1836January 13
June 17
July 17
November 1
Carey, E.L.1840November 12
 1841March 23
 1842August 31
Childs, Cephas Grier1844April 2
Cooke, Robert1846July 19
Crawford,1844December 14
Day, Edgar B.1843February 20
Durand, Asher Brown1836May 13
May 21
May 24
June 7
June 16
June 23
July 9
July 17
August 30
September 12
November 18
 1837June 9
June 14
July 29
November 2
December 11
 1838January 4
January 31
February 12
March 20
May 28
August 7
September 4
September 13
November 12
 1839September 4
December 18
 1840May 26
 1841July 12
 1842March 8
 1843March 4
 1844June 24
Edmonds, Francis William1842December 17
Gilmor, Robert
All these letters found grouped and filed under earliest date.
1821July 2
December 25
 1827December 7
 1828May 21
 1829January 5
January 20
February 2
February 18
April 20
April 26
May 1
May 25
May 31
 1830March 1
 1831May 1
On p. 42(2)
 1832January 29
On p. 42(3)
July 7
 1833March 3
April 2
May 2
Greene, George Washington1843November 23
Greenough, Horatio1832February 16
Hervey, D.B.1840January 3
February 22
Hone, Joseph (?) G.1833November 27
Huggins, James S.1840October 20
Hyde, Edwin C.1839September 2
Lanman, Charles1840June 15
 1843May 29
Lawrence, Sir Thomas1829October 5
Leslie, Charles Robert1836February 8
 1838September 3
Lester, C. Edwards1845October 22
December 17
Lightbody, Frederick W.1845November 17
Martin, W.1838April 28
Mason, Jonathan1843September 1
 1844December 19
Morton, John Ludlow1832January 31
February 20
Owen, H.E.1847April 28
Parker, Charles1844January 8
Perkins, Thomas Handasyd1829April 4
Phillips, Rev Joseph F.1840March 21
Reed, Luman1831September 7
 1833September 18
 1836January 2
January 13
January 20
February 6
February 18
February 19
March 2
March 6
March 20
Rossiter, Thomas Prichard1842August 19
Skinner, A.N.1843November 30
Smith, Alfred1844February 6
February 24
Spencer, Mark1844September 20
 1847January 22
February 26
Town, Ithiel1839March 6
 1840May 25
June 13
July 2
Townsend, Isaih1844January 6
 1845January 9
Van Rensselaer, William P.1837July 9
October 15
 1844October 22
Ver Bryck, Cornelius
On back of letter of this date to Edgar B. Day.
1843February 20
Van Vorst, Hooper C.1846November 7
Ward, John1841September 28
Ward, Samuel1839September 14
December 7
 1840September 23
October 12
October 28
November 14
Watterson, George1836May 2
Letters to Thomas Cole and Others
Adams, William A.1834August 13X  
 November 29X  
1835October 27X  
Printed circular with unsigned letter dated June 7 on back1838April 10 X 
 May 13X  
 June 26X 
 September 10X 
 October 1X 
 October 25X 
 November 14X 
 December 2X 
1839March 20X 
 April 12X 
 June 21X 
 October 17X 
 November 23X 
1840January 21X 
 May 4X 
 October 17X 
 December 19X 
1841April 25X 
1842August 6X 
1846April 12X 
Ainsley, Peter1847July 19X 
Ainsley, Samuel James1842May 26X 
1843July 12X 
1844March 31X 
1845March 22X 
1846March 31X 
Alexander, Francis, 1800-1881, American portrait painter1832August 12X 
1833December 18X 
1834April 2X 
 September 9X 
1835February 7X 
 April 5 X 
1836June 2X 
1837August 25X 
1838February 7X 
Allen, George F.1837June 8X 
 July 26X 
 September 4X 
 September 13X 
 October 2X 
1840February 10X 
 September 19X 
1844October 19X 
 December 17?X 
1845November 3X 
1846March 7X 
 November 3X 
Allen, Theodore1836September 22X 
 December 27X 
1837January 23?X 
 February 21X 
 July 1X 
1839February 21X 
 June 24X 
 September 21X 
1840December 10X 
1844September? 20X 
Allston, Washington, 1779-1843, American  poet and painter, letter (copy) to Henry Pickering.1827November 23  
Andrews, Mrs.n.d.   
Appleton, Nathan1829January 26  
Ashton, Thomas B.1837February 25 X
 March 2 X
1839January 1 X
 July 17X 
 October 11X 
On back of printed circular.1840January 1X 
 June 1X 
 July 7 X 
 November 27X 
1841April 21X 
1844January 20X 
Ashton & Browning1839July 17  
1840July 7  
Athenaeum Gallery, Boston. Committee on Arrangements1829January 26  
Balzani, Giovanni Batta1837June 3  
Baring, F.n.d.   
Barnes, T. n.d.X 
Bates, Joshua, 1788-1864, American financier.1833April 4X 
 June 3X 
1839October 17X 
 n.d.X (4) 
Baust, Nathaniel1844January 2  
Bell, Deyough & Co.1833January 12  
Bennet, Edwin Thomas1834June 28X 
(1834)July 12X 
(1834)July 26X 
(1834)August 26X 
1834September 17X 
 September 31 [sic]X  
Bennett, William James1836July 3X 
Bloodgood, Simeon DeWitt, 1799-1866, merchant and author.1834December 29X 
1835January 27X 
 March 23X 
 May 21X 
1836February 9X 
1836December 20X 
Bowdoin, James1829January 26  
Bridges, Anna1836June 16X 
Brown, James n.d. MondayX 
Bryant, William Cullen, 1794-1878.1830June 15X 
1841July 6X 
(To G.C. Grandi, Monaca, Bavaria)1841July 6X 
(To Prof. Rosini, Univ. of Pisa)1841August 6X 
(To Miss Julia Hepp, Heidelberg)1841August 6X 
1843December 22X 
Bullock, S.M.1840December 22X 
Burnet, James A.1838July 20X 
1838August 13X 
1838September 15X 
1838October 22X 
Caffe, P.1837May 15  
Carey, E.L.1841March 16X 
 December 24  
Cary, William F.1841March 11X 
Caver, E.1841December 24X 
1843April 4X 
 April 18X 
Cheney, John1832April 10X 
Childs, Cephas Grier1844March 30X 
1845November 24X 
Church, Frederic Edwin, 1826-1900, landscape painter, pupil of Thomas Cole.1844May 20X 
Clark, Lewis Gaylord, 1810-1873, author, editor.1840August 1X 
 November 20X 
1841March 19X 
(1841)(June 1)X 
1844February 26X 
1845May 1X 
Cleveland, Charles 1840September 23  
Coit, D.W.1834February 19  
Collier, C.P.1846November 18  
Conely, William S. 1838October 18  
Constable, John, 1776-18371830June 18  
Cooke, Andrew S.1839June 26X 
Cooke, George1831MayX 
1846April 10X 
Cooke (Cook?), Robert1846May 18X 
 July 3  
Coolidge, Joseph, Jr.1829January 26  
Cooper, Anne (daughter of J.F. Cooper)1841September 23X 
Cranch, John, d.1883; portrait painter.1831May 23X 
Cropsey, Jasper Francis, 1823-1900, landscape painter.1848March 16X 
Croswell, Edwin, 1797-1871, journalist.1841April 3X 
 December 29X 
Cummings, Thomas Seir, 1804-1894, painter and art writer.1828August 16X 
1835September 27X 
1836November 21  
1837June 1  
1837September 1  
1838March 15  
Danforth, Moseley Isaac, 1800-1862, engraver.(1841)(July 31)X 
Davisn.d.12. Sat.  
Davis, J.P., painter1838March 30X 
1838August 1X 
1838August 26X 
1838October 1X 
Day, Edgar B.1841March 16X 
1843February 17  
Delavan, Edward Cornelius1832December 3X 
Dewey, Orville, 1794-1882, American theologian.1839March 13X 
1841August 16X 
(To Mrs. Cole)1848February 17X 
Dexter, Franklin, 1793-1857, lawyer.1834March 12X 
1835March 5X 
 (n.d.)X (5) 
Dorsey, Stanton1835July 19X 
1836June 9X 
 November 13 X 
1839December 26X 
1840April 19X 
Dunlap, William, 1766-1839, portrait painter.1836March 7X 
1838October 11X 
Durand, Asher Brown, 1796-1886, engraver and painter.1836November 20X 
1838November 18X 
1840February 19X 
1842January 16X 
(initials only)1847March 11X  
Dutton, W.1829January 26  
Dwight, Theodore1834August 19X 
1835January 7X 
 April 21 (20?)X 
1835October 21X 
1836June 3  
Edmonds, Francis Williams, 1806-1863, artist.1842October 28X 
 December 17X 
Eliot, Samuel Atkins, 1798-1862, mayor of Boston.1829January 26  
1833April 6X 
1839October 29X 
Elliott, M.G.1834August 9  
Everett, Edward, 1794-1865, writer, orator, statesman.1834March 13X 
Faile, Thomas H.1841August 7X (2) 
1842January 3X 
Falconer, John M.1858June 22X 
Featherstonehaugh, George William, 1780-1886, English traveler/landowner.1825December 12X 
1826April 7X 
 November 8X 
Field, H.W.1832March 9X 
Firth, William1842August 28  
 September 29  
1843January 3  
 February 10  
Fisher, I. Henrick1833June 12X 
Fraser, Robert F.1844July 5X 
1846September 8X 
 December 8X 
Gay, Henry B.1848February 16X 
 February 17  
Gaylord, Charles S.1838March 14X 
1841July 12X 
Gilmor, Robert1826August 1X 
 December 13X 
 December 27X 
1827December 5X 
 December 13X 
1828May 24X 
1829January 15X 
 January 25 (26?)X 
 April 22X 
1830October 20X 
1832December 4X 
1833February 27X 
 March 11X 
 April 15X 
 May 11X 
1835May 19X 
1837June 22X 
Girth, William1842August 28X 
 September 29X 
1843January 3X 
 February 10X 
Gracie, W.1828February 2  
Greene, George Washington(1841?) X 
(1841?) X 
(1842) X 
1842May 26X 
1843August 8X 
1845February 15X 
Greene, John B.
See page 3 of printed circular of December 31, 1841.
1842January 1  
Greenough, Horatio, 1805-1852, American sculptor.1832May 19X 

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