I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone that Thomas Cole’s work is on my list of art that inspires me. He’s definitely one of the individual artists I talk about the most, probably second only to John Singer Sargent. To talk about why I love Cole’s work in general, I would probably have to write a whole book, so I’m going to focus on one particular painting that I recently saw for the first time. It’s called A Snow Squall, and it was painted in 1825. I saw it while on loan to the Princeton University Art Gallery for its Nature’s Nation: American Art and the Environment exhibition.
This painting caught my attention from across the room, and I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Cole was the artist. It really shows one of the qualities I love best about his work. Cole imbued his landscapes with emotion in a way that most other Hudson River School painters didn’t. It’s easy to tell that he found a spiritual significance in the landscape. He always showed the deep feelings and meanings that he perceived within it.
In this particular painting, the atmospheric effects are the main expressive force, namely the snow and fog that blend into each other so that you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. It creates an almost supernatural feeling, particularly when contrasted with the foreground features in sharp focus. Cole isn’t typically known for his use of atmospheric effects – certainly not the way someone like Turner is – but he often used them masterfully. The overall effect definitely puts it in the category of the Sublime, particularly with the blasted trees, dramatic rock formations, and the wolf in the foreground. However, the tone is less intense than what you might experience in the works of someone like Caspar David Friedrich.
Not all of Cole’s landscape paintings are wild and Romantic landscapes like this one. He also made complex paintings of high allegories in imagined settings, like The Architect’s Dream or Course of the Empire, and more straightforward scenes of the American or European landscape, like The Oxbow. In fact, I don’t feel that Cole gets enough credit for painting so well in several different styles. However, I think that the spiritual quality they bring to the landscape is definitely the one thing all of his works have in common.
I’ve enjoyed Cole’s work in many different places, since most American museums own at least one piece by him. I also visited his upstate-New York home and studio a few summers ago.