Thomas Cole: An Exegesis of Time

  • Abstract:
    The painter Thomas Cole inaugurated the first indigenous American school of painting: the Hudson River School. Cole observed that the consumer market already favored scenes of the American landscape. Cole’s canvases introduced the already accessible natural landscape (particularly the Hudson River environs) in conflation with allegory and metaphysics in the service of codifying a national propaganda. In fact, public taste was being guided by the New York elite in the rhetorical media, the political sphere, in commerce and in literature. These men, veterans of the Revolution, were avidly aware of distinguishing American identity, particularly in counterpoint to that of Europe. However, this codification of Americanism is problematic. The affirmation of Americanism through the mimetic American scenery was contemporaneously challenged by a land and time increasingly subsumed by industrial capitalism. Scholars have well assessed the nationalistic, Christian, emblematic, byronic, and allegorical elements in Cole’s paintings. However, the branding of America through a deliberate transcendence of time and place through his reflexive works into a perpetual present remains for consideration. This paper examines that being present occurs in a privatized public space during a post-structuralist slippage between the tension of nature and civilization. As Cole’s painting series The Course of the Empire (as his subsequent series, The Voyage of Life) is bipartite in its assessment of idealism and reality according to the canvas number and sequencing, this paper will culminate in a consideration of the slippage between the collective and individual identity within the American context. Further, providing a new reading of the reception of Cole’s The Course of the Empire.