Thomas Cole. Oil on canvas, 1834, 39 ½ x 63 ½ in. Collection of The New-York Historical Society, 1858.2.
Thomas Cole's artistic persona informed his ideas about the art-making process. As a young man, he fashioned an identity as a romantic artist, initially favoring wild sublime subjects and privileging untouched nature over civilization's institutions. Such predilections influenced his dress and other aspects of self-presentation. Cole roamed the wilderness in a black, flowing cape (see View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House). Although Cole mastered all the landscape conventions of his era—this particular painting in The Course of Empire series shows a special facility with the pastoral mode—his self-conception remained tied to romantic ideals throughout his life. In contrast to Durand's calm portrait of Cole, the artist's own self-portrait and a late daguerreotype reveal a more intense, even brooding personality. These two works give evidence of Cole's romantic sensibility.
One important aspect of romanticism was a notion of childhood as the origin of inherent creativity. As an artist who had little academic training, Cole probably conceived of his own talent in these terms. Although Cole included numerous self-references to his role as creator throughout the series of paintings in The Course of Empire, none is more intriguing than Cole's identification with the boy drawing in the foreground of The Pastoral State (zoom in to see the artist's initials below the boy).
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, artists sought to represent the "The Origins of Painting" or "The Origins of Drawing." They looked back to legends of natural-born geniuses, such as Giorgio Vasari's tale of the discovery of Giotto. According to Vasari, the Italian artist Cimabue recognized the amazing abilities of the unschooled Giotto as the young shepherd boy sketched on a rock in a pasture.
In 1827, Cole himself jotted down an idea for a work based on Vasari's legend. Parry speculates that the subject may have appealed to Cole because of his own "miraculous" discovery in 1825, which has itself become a potent legend in the history of American art. Reportedly, the older, well-established painter John Trumbull declared, on first encountering Cole's paintings: "This youth has done at once, and without instruction, what I cannot do after 50 years' practice." 1
By placing his initials under this boy who symbolizes—in Parry's words—the "infancy of the fine arts," Cole seems to underscore his own indwelling talent. On the other hand, close inspection of the boy's drawing reveals a comical stick figure of the woman holding a distaff. These childish scratches undercut the pretense of natural genius and may in fact hint at Cole's own insecurities as a figure painter.
1. Thomas Cole, <cite>Self-Portrait</cite>, oil on canvas, c.1836, 17 ¾ x 22 in. New-York Historical Society. Purchase, The Watson Fund, 1964.41. View in Virtual Gallery
2. Matthew B. Brady, <cite>Daguerreotype of Thomas Cole</cite>, daguerreotype, c.1844-48. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-8981 DLC, DAG no. 057. View in Scrapbook
3. Asher B. Durand, <cite>Portrait of Thomas Cole</cite>, oil on canvas, 1838. Berkshire Museum. Gift of Zenas Crane. View in Scrapbook
4. Thomas Cole, <cite>The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State</cite>, oil on canvas, 1834, 39 ½ x 63 ½ in. Collection of The New-York Historical Society, 1858.2.