“The great landscapist has his own peculiar obsession…”

“Peculiar obsession”!  Turning one’s gaze from the profitable arena of portrait painting, American artists at the end of the 18th century and in the early 19th century chose to leave the lucrative world of portrait painting in favor of nature’s powerful lure—Landscape!  Landscape was a theme that was not on the radar of patrons but American painters turned their eyes to the picturesque which was a new obsession.  Denis Diderot, in a salon review of 1767, insightfully wrote the following:  “The great landscapist has his own peculiar obsession; it is a kind of sacred horror.  His caverns are deep and gloomy; precipitous rocks threaten the sky…man passes through the domain of demons and gods.”

What are your thoughts of American landscape painter Thomas Cole who was fascinated by the American landscape which lay beyond the civilized borders of cities in the slowly vanishing American wilderness.  Cole and a number of other American and European artists were captivated by the “wilds” of the frontier and hoped to instill a similar response in their audience.  It was a hard sell but, nevertheless, these artists prevailed and left a body of work that is stunning.

Thomas Cole, Photograph of the Artist, 1846

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow of the Connecticut River, 1836

Thomas Cole, Course of Empire—Savage State, 1836

Thomas Cole, Course of Empire—Consummation, 1836

Thomas Cole, Home in the Woods, 1847

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.


8 thoughts on ““The great landscapist has his own peculiar obsession…””

  1. I think Cole managed to capture that “otherness” that the outdoors has. It is powerful and resistance to humans. It does not need us, it does not need us to think it’s beautiful, it does not need us to tame it because that would be impossible. It resists any description that we place on it. It cannot be captured by human words but it can be hinted at in a painting. Cole’s work does just that. When looking at his work, you instantly get the feeling of being insignificant. Of being an ant next to a mountain. Of being a human next to God.


    1. I completely agree, Julie. I think using the word “otherness” is a great description of what the artists were trying to capture. Landscapes were something new, something undiscovered, something maybe a little frightening. I think this idea of landscapes being “untamable” are exactly what made landscapes so intriguing for these artists’ to paint. It is hard to accurately capture them 100%, but these artists definitely opened up a window to a world that was previously undiscovered.


  2. Thomas Cole was a pretty big deal. Reviewing his ”Course of Empire—Consummation” landscape painting, You almost feel engulfed in it, living in this fantasy world where everything is so ever pristine. Even in some of his more dramatic paintings which stood in heavy contrast, nothing is ever in question.The detail with which Cole painted each of his sublime images was I believe an act of preservation, or an effort to memorialize the views that he feared may one day no longer exist giving his audience members a newfound appreciation for nature and it’s alluring presence.


  3. Portrait painting is a relationship, one that has with the patron or the subject. Landscape painting in the other hand is more of a journey that one takes; one cannot control landscape and you are merely a receptor of what is happening. With portraiture the idea of control is an option for both the painter and the subject, so it could become boring, with landscape all you do is receive information, you cannot control anything and it is an experience. I can see why for artist this was something exciting and new to tackle but for those who weren’t part of the process it was simply just the outside, nothing interesting or feared that the powerful nature would show how insignificant one truly is– that feeling is not something that would push someone to want to buy a painting were the majestic and powerful subject was not oneself but rather the unknown. That doesn’t really sell.


  4. I don’t really think that he was trying to portray “otherness,” but more divine intervention. Many of his paintings show light shining from the skies, illuminating the landscapes. The landscapes are natural, realistic portrayals, but they are also heavily edited to be even more beautiful and awe-inspiring than they really were. I think his landscapes reveal the general romanticism surrounding the wild. It was the general belief of many of the Hudson River School in Manifest Destiny. I think Cole’s paintings reflect, though perhaps in a more subtle way.


  5. As one that loves exploring the outdoors and going on adventures around the world, I have come to appreciate and respect nature. Thomas Cole’s perception of the American wilderness and his exceptional treatment of colors and use of light greatly reflects his ideals of protecting the American landscape from humankind (ravages of the axe). In my opinion, I believe that Thomas Cole has always illustrated beauty among the ugly by painting his landscapes by providing a contrasting relationship between nature and humankind’s quest to industrialize.


  6. Thomas Cole does an excellent job of portraying his views on both the beauty of the land that he saw, as well as the menace that civilization would have on it. He sought to portray just how magnificent the wilderness was beyond our borders, while simultaneously warning of it’s destruction to the coming masses of settlers. In both The Oxbow of the Connecticut River and Course of Empire – Savage State, a beautiful landscape is being overshadowed by the ominous cloud of man. It shows that even back then, there were people that were worried about the destruction of the beauty in the world.


  7. I personally do not have much thought on the artist. I am not really a huge fan of landscape art, but I admire his adoration for the american landscape. He was able to leave a stunning body of art that today is prized so highly and isn’t that basically what matters? It goes to show that no matter what anyone else says, pursue your passion and you will be happy in life.


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