Thomas Cole. Oil on canvas, 1827, 25 ¼ x 35 1/8 in. New Britain Museum of American Art. Charles F. Smith Fund, 1945.22.
...I never succeed in painting scenes, however beautiful, immediately on returning from them. I must wait for time to draw a veil over the common details, the unessential parts, which shall leave the great features, whether the beautiful or the sublime dominant in the mind. 1
Throughout his 1825 trip up the Hudson, Cole kept a sketchbook in which he jotted down ideas, assembled a list of patrons, and most importantly, sketched directly from nature. This was a significant departure from his approach of only a few years before, in which he taught himself to draw based on popular manuals—such as William Oram's Precepts and Observations on the Art of Colouring in Landscape Painting of 1810 and Henry Williams's Elements of Drawing of 1818—that included step-by-step instructions for rendering simple objects. 2 Cole's early sketches, such as Sketch of Flowers, are highly stylized, yet they do demonstrate a distinct interest in nature, and there are many separate studies of various types of trees and flowers among these works.
When Cole began to draw en plein air in 1823, he once again created studies of various species of flora, as in Tree from Nature. Yet as Tracy Felker notes, they feel "stiff and awkward", 3 suggesting that the transition from instructional manual to direct observation of nature was a difficult one. However, the drawings do have a nascent expressiveness that is lacking in Cole's copies from illustrations in manuals. By the time Cole painted The Clove in 1827, his direct study of nature had come to inform his works masterfully. This was a remarkable achievement for a largely self-taught landscape artist.
1. Thomas Cole, <cite>Sketch of Flowers</cite>, graphite on off-white paper, 1823, 9 ¼ x 7 ½ in. From "Sketchbook No. 1, Pitsburg, 1823." McKinney Library manuscript collection, Albany Institute of History and Art. View in Virtual Gallery
2. Thomas Cole, <cite>Tree From Nature</cite>, graphite, pen, and brown ink on off-white paper, 1823, 9 ¼ in x 7 ¾ in. Albany Institute of History and Art. Gift of Edith Cole (Mrs. Howard) Silberstein, great-granddaughter of the artist, 1965.68.1. View in Virtual Gallery
3. Thomas Cole, <cite>The Clove, Catskills</cite>, oil on canvas, 1827, 25 ¼ x 35 1/8 in. New Britain Museum of American Art. Charles F. Smith Fund, 1945.22.