Thomas Cole. Oil on canvas, 1826, 43 x 36 in. The Westervelt-Warner Museum of American Art in Tuscaloosa, AL.
By 1825, Cole's creative process involved forming what he called his "mind's eye vision" of the sites he had visited. He would call upon his sense of how things should look as well as relying on the drawings he had made in the field. His on-site sketches were often laden with notes describing color, atmospheric effects, and specific geological formations. He orchestrated these sources into strikingly inventive and idealized conceptions.
In Falls of the Kaaterskill, he exploited the pictorial possibilities of this wild and spectacular site. Here, Cole was in his element, reveling in the sort of landscape that inspired him most: grand, impressive, jagged, and sublime. Cole recorded his visual impressions in the en plein air study Catskill Falls, executing a rough topographical pencil sketch with notes describing the Falls' various trees, shrubs, and rock formations. He also made quick note of the observation pavilion and guard rails at the top of the cataract, which had recently been installed to accommodate tourists flocking to the site from the nearby Mountain House.
In the studio, Cole developed a charcoal-and-crayon sketch entitled Double Waterfall—Kaaterskill Falls that still bears the imprint of his observations at the site (note that the observation pavilion and guard rails remain). Although charcoal drawings such as Double Waterfall are among Cole's most lovely works on paper, he rarely used this medium, preferring to work in graphite.
Writing to his patron, Robert Gilmor, Jr., Cole described his process:
In speaking of sketching from nature I believe I have before mentioned that mine are generally mere outlines & I have found that for me the mode I have adopted is the best—others may pursue a different course to advantage. My desire & endeavor is always to get the objects of nature, sky, rocks, trees, &c—as strongly impressed on my mind as possible & by looking intently on an object for twenty minutes I can go to my room & paint it with much more truth, than I could if I employed several hours on the spot. 1
From the charcoal drawing, Cole composed a small, preliminary oil sketch, Kauterskill Falls, in order to refine his ideas about color and composition. Finally, he arrived at his much more dramatic full-scale painting, based on all these preliminary works. Although Cole visited the site before the leaves had turned, Falls of the Kaaterskill displays the full blaze of autumn foliage. To further emphasize the Falls' wild and primitive quality, he dispensed with signs of tourism, such as the platform and railings, and instead inserted a solitary Native American perched on the rock ledge. The final work provides a much more exciting vision of the American wilderness than those provided by Wall's earlier views of the Hudson River Valley.
1. Thomas Cole, <cite>Catskill Falls (Kaaterskill Falls)</cite>, pencil on paper, c.1825-26. Detroit Institute of Arts. Founders Society Purchase, William H. Murphy Fund, 39.206.A. View in Virtual Gallery
2. Thomas Cole, <cite>Double Waterfall--Kaaterskill Falls</cite>, graphite pencil, charcoal, black and white crayon on off-white wove paper, 1826. Detroit Institute of Arts. Founders Society Purchase, William H. Murphy Fund, 39.503. View in Virtual Gallery
3. Thomas Cole, <cite>Kaaterskill Falls</cite>, oil on canvas, 1826, 9 ¾ x 7 ¾ in. Graham Williford Foundation for American Art. View in Virtual Gallery
4. Thomas Cole, <cite>Falls of the Kaaterskill</cite>, oil on canvas, 1826, 43 x 36 in. The Westervelt-Warner Museum of American Art in Tuscaloosa, AL.