Van Gogh •
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Thomas Cole, outstanding Hudson River landscapist, was born in Lancashire, England. He was apprenticed to a textile designer and engraver before
immigrating, with this family, to Philadelphia in 1819. In Philadelphia, he added the technique of wood engraving to his repetoire. When the Cole family moved to Stuebenville, Ohio Thomas made a short voyage to the West Indies before joining them. In Ohio, he became an itinerant portrait painter for some years and then returned to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where he was most influenced by the landscapes of Thomas Birch and Thomas Doughty. In 1825 Cole moved to New York City, spent a summer roaming around the Catskills, and made his debut as a landscapist. His work was markedly romantic yet minutely exact, dramatic yet scrupulously naturalistic in composition and leaned heavily toward the unspoiled, primeval aspects of nature. Three of his first paintings were purchased by well-known artists, which helped establish his reputation rapidly. Cole began to spend more and more time in the mountains and along the shores of the Hudson River, but when he decided to go to Europe in 1829, the poet William Cullen Bryant exhorted him in a sonnet to "keep that earlier, wilder image bright."
In Europe, Cole discovered J.M.W. Turner, Raphael,
and Claude Lorrain during his visit to London, Paris, Florence and Rome. After his return to America in 1832 he began to combine his knowledge of European art with his natural impulse to portray nature as he saw it. He painted series of enormous allegorical significance: "The Course of Empire" (1836) and "The Voyage of Life" (1839), are good examples of these. They were reproduced as engravings and they sold very well, providing him with the means to return to Rome in 1841 where he closed himself off from the world to paint a second version of "The Voyage of Life". The work was badly received in Rome and Cole returned to his family, to the home he had established in Catskill-on-Hudson, and to his beloved mountains. He was ill, depressed, and tortured, and spent the remainder of his life painting the romantic, realistic landscapes that are his greatest works. With their striking contrasts of light and shade, their inherent feeling of God's presence in nature, their exquisitely fine detail and warm color, they are the keystone of American landscape painting-honest, moving, and beautiful.