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Thomas Cole

Four of my favorite pictures from childhood have been Cole's "Voyage of

Life." I have studied the tiny infant in the boat surrounded by roses,

life's stream full of luxuriant vegetation; the happy, ambitious youth,

looking eagerly forward to the Temple of Fame, steering the boat

himself, with no need of aid from his guardian angel; then the worried

and troubled man, his boat tossing and whirling among the broken trees

nd frightful storms that come to all; and lastly, perhaps most

beautiful, the old man sailing peacefully into the ocean of eternity,

the angel having returned to guide him, and the way to heaven being

filled with celestial spirits. I have always hung these pictures near my

writing-table, and their lesson has been a helpful and inspiring one.

No wonder that Thorwaldsen, the great sculptor, said when he looked upon

them in Rome, "O great artist! what beauty of conception! what an

admirable arrangement of parts! what an accurate study of nature! what

truth of detail!" He told Cole that his work was entirely new and

original, executed in a masterly manner, and he commended the harmony

of color.

These pictures are hung in thousands of homes; but how few persons know

the history of the artist! Born in England, Feb. 1, 1801, the only son

in a family of eight children, and the youngest but one, we find him

when a mere child, in some print-works, learning to engrave simple

designs for calico. His father, a woolen manufacturer, had failed in

business, and the family were thrown upon themselves for support. He was

a kind and honest man, always hoping to succeed, but never succeeding;

always trying new scenes to build up his fortune and never building it.

Like other fathers, especially those who have been disappointed in life,

he had hopes that his boy would accomplish more than himself.

He wished to apprentice him to an attorney or to an iron manufacturer,

but Thomas saw no pleasure in Blackstone, or in handling ponderous iron.

A boy of tender feelings, he found little companionship with his

fellow-operatives, most of whom were rough; and he enjoyed most an old

Scotchman who could repeat ballads, and tell of the beautiful hills and

lakes of his native land. When he had leisure, he wandered with his

sister Sarah into the surrounding country; and while she sang, he

accompanied her with his flute.

With little opportunity for school, he was a great reader; and when

through with designs for calico for the day, he buried himself in

books, especially about foreign countries, and in imagination clambered

over high mountains, and sailed upon broad rivers. He talked much to the

family of the wonders of the New World; and when he was eighteen, they

all sailed for America. The father rented a little house and shop in

Philadelphia, and began to sell the small stock of dry-goods which he

had brought with him, while Thomas found work with a person who supplied

woodcuts for printers.

The father soon became dissatisfied with his prospects, and moved his

family to Steubenville, Ohio, where he hoped to find a land flowing with

milk and honey. Thomas remained behind, working on some illustrations

for Bunyan's "Holy War," keeping up his spirits with his beloved flute;

going to Steubenville the next year, walking almost the entire way from


Here he worked in his father's small manufactory of paper-hangings; yet

he had longings to do some great work in the world, as he wandered alone

in the wild and charming scenery. He loved music, architecture, and

pictures, but he hardly dared breathe his aspirations save in a few

verses of poetry. How in that quiet home a boy should be born who had

desires to win renown was a mystery. Nobody knows whence the perilous

but blessed gift of ambition comes.

About this time a portrait-painter by the name of Stein came to the

village. He took an interest in the poetic boy, and loaned him an

English illustrated work on painting. Thomas had already acquired some

skill in drawing. Now his heart was on fire as he read about Raphael,

Claude Lorraine, and Titian, and he resolved to make painting his

life-work. How little he knew of the obstacles before a poor artist!

He set to work to make his own brushes, obtaining his colors from a

chair-maker. His easel and palette were of his own crude manufacture.

The father had serious misgivings for his son; but his mother encouraged

him to persevere in whatever his genius seemed to lie. As a rule, women

discover genius sooner than men, and good Mary Cole had seen that there

was something uncommon in her boy. His brushes ready, putting his scanty

wearing apparel and his flute in a green baize bag, hung over his

shoulder, the youth of twenty-one started for St. Clairsville, thirty

miles distant, to begin life as a painter. He broke through the ice in

crossing a stream, and, wet to his breast, arrived at the town, only to

find that a German had just been there, and had painted all the

portraits which were desired.

However, a saddler was found who was willing to be painted, and after

five days of work from morning till night, the young artist received a

new saddle as pay. A military officer gave him an old silver watch for a

portrait, and a dapper tradesman a chain and key, which proved to be

copper instead of gold. For some other work he received a pair of shoes

and a dollar. All these, except the dollar, he was obliged to give to

his landlord for board, the man being dissatisfied even with this


From here Thomas walked one hundred miles to Zanesville, and to his

great sorrow, found that the German had preceded him here also, and

painted the tavern-keeper and his family. The landlord intimated that a

historical picture would be taken in payment for the young stranger's

board. Accordingly an impromptu studio was arranged. A few patrons came

at long intervals; but it was soon evident that another field must be

chosen. What, however, was young Cole's astonishment to find that the

historical painting would not be received for board, and that if

thirty-five dollars were not at once paid, he would be thrust into jail!

Two or three acquaintances became surety for the debt to the

unprincipled landlord, and the pale, slender artist hastened toward

Chillicothe with but a sixpence in his pocket.

After walking for three days, seventy-five miles, he sat down under a

tree by the roadside, wellnigh discouraged, in the hot August day; but

when the tears gathered in his eyes, he took out his flute, and playing

a lively air, his courage returned. He had two letters of introduction

in his pocket, given him at Zanesville, and these he would present,

whispering to himself that he must "hold up his head like Michael

Angelo" as he offered them. The men who received them had little time

or wish to aid the young man. A few persons sat for their portraits, and

a few took lessons in drawing; but after a time he had no money to pay

for washing his linen, and at last no linen even to be washed. Still

enthusiastic over art, and with visions of Italy floating in his mind,

yet penniless and footsore, he returned to Steubenville to tell his

sorrows to his sympathetic mother. How her heart must have been moved as

she looked upon her boy's pale face, and great blue eyes, and felt his

eager desire for a place of honor in the world, but knew, alas! that she

was powerless to aid him.

He took a plain room for a studio, painted some scenes for a society of

amateur actors, and commenced two pictures,--Ruth gleaning in the field

of Boaz, and the feast of Belshazzar. One Sunday, some vicious boys

broke into the studio, mixed the paints, broke the brushes, and cut the

paintings in pieces. Learning that the boys were poor, Cole could not

bear to prosecute them; and the matter was dropped. He soon departed to

Pittsburgh, whither his parents had moved, and began to assist his

father in making floor-cloths. Every moment of leisure he was down by

the banks of the Monongahela, carefully drawing tree, or cloud, or


Finally the old longing became irresistible. He packed his little trunk,

his mother threw over his shoulders the table cover, with her blessing

and her tears; and with six dollars in his purse, he said good-bye to

the family and started for Philadelphia. Then followed, as he used to

say in after years, the "winter of his discontent." In a poor quarter of

the city, in an upper room, without a bed or fire or furniture,

struggled poor Thomas Cole. Timid, friendless, his only food a baker's

roll and a pitcher of water, his only bedding at night the table cover,

he worked day by day, now copying in the Academy, and now ornamenting

bellows, brushes, or Japan ware, with figures of birds or with flowers.

Sometimes he ran down a neighboring alley, whipping his hands about him

to keep his blood in circulation, lest he be benumbed. He soon became

the victim of inflammatory rheumatism, and was a great sufferer. He

still saw before him, someway, somehow, renown. Meantime his pure, noble

soul found solace in writing poetry and an occasional story for the

"Saturday Evening Post." After a year and a half he put his goods on a

wheelbarrow, had them carried to the station, and started for New York,

whither his family had moved.

He was now twenty-four. Life had been one continuous struggle. Still he

loved each beauty in nature, and hoped for the good time to come. In his

father's garret in Greenwich Street, in a room so narrow that he could

scarcely work, and so poorly lighted that he was "perpetually fighting a

kind of twilight," he labored for two years. Obstacles seemed but to

increase his determination to persevere. Of such grand material are

heroes made!

His first five pictures were placed for exhibition in the shop of an

acquaintance, and were sold at eight dollars apiece. Through the

courtesy of a gentleman who purchased three of these, he was enabled to

go up the Hudson and sketch from nature among the Catskills. This was

indeed a great blessing. On his return, he painted "A View of Fort

Putnam," "Lake with dead trees," and "The Falls of the Caterskills."

These were purchased at twenty-five dollars apiece by three

artists,--Trumbull, Dunlap, and Durand.

Trumbull first discovered the merits of the pictures, buying the "Falls"

for his studio, and invited Cole to meet Durand at his rooms. At the

hour appointed the sensitive artist made his appearance, so timid that

at first he could only reply to their cordial questioning by

monosyllables. Colonel Trumbull said, "You surprise me, at your age, to

paint like this. You have already done what I, with all my years and

experience, am yet unable to do." Through the new friends, attention was

called to his work, and he soon had abundant commissions. How his hungry

heart must have fed on this appreciation! "From that time," said his

friend, William Cullen Bryant, "he had a fixed reputation, and was

numbered among the men of whom our country had reason to be proud. I

well remember what an enthusiasm was awakened by these early works of

his,--the delight which was expressed at the opportunity of

contemplating pictures which carried the eye over scenes of wild

grandeur peculiar to our country, over our arid mountain-tops with their

mighty growth of forest never touched by the axe, along the banks of

streams never deformed by culture, and into the depth of skies bright

with the hues of our own climate; such skies as few but Cole could ever

paint, and through the transparent abysses of which it seemed that you

might send an arrow out of sight."

The struggles were not all over, but the "renown" of which the

calico-designer had dreamed had actually come. Down in the heart of Mary

Cole there must have been deep thanksgiving that she had urged him on.

He with a few others now founded the National Academy of Design. He took

lodgings in the Catskills in the summer of 1826, and worked diligently.

He studied nature like a lover; now he sketched a peculiar sunset, now a

wild storm, now an exquisite waterfall. "Why do not the younger

landscape painters walk--walk alone, and endlessly?" he used to say.

"How I have walked, day after day, and all alone, to see if there was

not something among the old things which was new!" He knew every chasm,

every velvety bank, every dainty flower growing in some tanglewood for

miles around. American scenery, with its untamed wilderness, lake, and

mountain, was his chief passion. He found no pleasure, however, in

hunting or fishing; for his kind heart could not bear to inflict the

slightest injury.

The following spring he exhibited at the National Academy the "Garden of

Eden and the Expulsion," rich in poetic conception; and in the fall

sketched in the White Mountains, especially near North Conway, which the

lamented Starr King loved so well. In the winter he was very happy,

finishing his "Chocorua Peak." A visitor said, "Your clouds, sir, appear

to move."

"That," replied the artist, "is precisely the effect I desire."

He was now eager to visit Europe to study art; but first he must see

Niagara, of which he made several sketches. He had learned the secret,

that all poets and artists finally learn,--that they must identify

themselves with some great event in history, something grand in nature,

or some immortal name. Milton chose a sublime subject, Homer a great

war, just as some one will make our civil war a famous epic two

centuries hence.

In June, 1829, he sailed for Europe, and there, for two years, studied

faithfully. In London, he saw much of Turner, of whom he said, "I

consider him as one of the greatest landscape painters that ever lived,

and his 'Temple of Jupiter' as fine as anything the world has produced.

In landscapes, my favorites are Claude Lorraine, and Gaspar Poussin."

Some of Cole's work was exhibited at the British Gallery, but the autumn

coloring was generally condemned as false to nature! How little we know

about that which we have not seen!

Paris he enjoyed greatly for its clear skies and sunny

weather,--essentials usually to those of poetic temperament, though he

was not over pleased with the Venuses and Psyches of modern French art.

For nine months he found the "galleries of Florence a paradise to a

painter." He thought our skies more gorgeous than the Italian, though

theirs have "a peculiar softness and beauty." At Rome, some of his

friends said, "Cole works like a crazy man." He usually rose at five

o'clock, worked till noon, taking an hour for eating and rest, and then

sketched again till night.

There was a reason for this. The support of the family came upon him,

besides the payment of debts incurred by his father.

He felt that every hour was precious. In Rome, he found the Pantheon

"simple and grand"; the Apollo Belvidere "the most perfect of human

productions," while the Venus de Medici has "the excellence of feminine

form, destitute in a great measure of intellectual expression"; the

"Transfiguration," "beautiful in color and chiaroscuro," and Michael

Angelo's "Moses," "one of the things never to be forgotten."

On his return to New York he took rooms at the corner of Wall Street and

Broadway. Here he won the friendship of Luman Reed, for whom he promised

to paint pictures for one room, to cost five thousand dollars. The chief

pictures for Mr. Reed, who died before their completion, were five,

called "The Course of Empire," representing man in the different phases

of savage life, high civilization, and ruin through sin, the idea coming

to him while in Rome. Of this group, Cooper, the novelist, said, "I

consider the 'Course of Empire' the work of the highest genius this

country has ever produced, and one of the noblest works of art that has

ever been wrought."

In November, 1836, Mr. Cole was married to Maria Bartow, a young lady of

refinement and loveliness of character. Soon after, both of his parents

died. The "Departure and Return" were now painted, "among his noblest

works," says Bryant, followed by the "Voyage of Life," for Mr. Samuel

Ward, who, like Mr. Reed, died before the set was finished. This series

was sold in 1876 for three thousand one hundred dollars. These pictures

he had worked upon with great care and intensity. He used to say,

"Genius has but one wing, and, unless sustained on the other side by the

well-regulated wing of assiduity, will quickly fall to the ground. The

artist must work always; his eye and mind can work even when his pen is

idle. He must, like a magician, draw a circle round him, and exclude all

intrusive spirits. And above all, if he would attain that serene

atmosphere of mind in which float the highest conceptions of the soul in

which the sublimest works have been produced, he must be possessed of a

holy and reasonable faith."

The "Voyage of Life" was well received. The engraver, Mr. Smilie, found

one morning before the second of the series, "Youth," a person in middle

life looking as though in deep thought. "Sir," he said at length, "I am

a stranger in the city, and in great trouble of mind. But the sight of

these pictures has done me great good. I go away from this place

quieted, and much strengthened to do my duty."

In 1841, worn in health, Cole determined to visit Europe again. He wrote

from Kenilworth Castle to his wife, "Every flower and mass of ivy, every

picturesque effect, waked my regret that you were not by my side.... How

can I paint without you to praise, or to criticize, and little Theddy to

come for papa to go to dinner, and little Mary with her black eyes to

come and kiss the figures in the pictures?... My life will be burdened

with sadness until I return to my wife and family." In Rome he received

much attention, as befitted one in his position.

On his return, he painted several European scenes, the "Roman Campagna,"

"Angels Ministering to Christ in the Wilderness," "Mountain Ford" (sold

in 1876 for nine hundred dollars), "The Good Shepherd," "Hunter's

Return," "Mill at Sunset," and many others. For his "Mount Etna,"

painted in five days, he received five hundred dollars. How different

these days from that pitiful winter in Philadelphia!

He dreaded interruptions in his work. His "St. John the Baptist in the

Wilderness" was destroyed by an unexpected visit from some ladies and

gentlemen, who quenched the fire of heart in which he was working. He

sorrowfully turned the canvas to the wall, and never finished it. He had

now come to the zenith of his power, yet he modestly said, "I have only

learned how to paint." He built a new studio in the Catskills, in the

Italian villa style, and hoped to erect a gallery for several paintings

he had in contemplation, illustrating the cross and the world, and the

immortality of the soul.

But the overworked body at forty-seven years of age could no longer bear

the strain. On Saturday, Feb. 5, 1848, he laid his colors under water,

and cleansed his palette as he left his studio. The next day he was

seized with inflammation of the lungs. The following Friday, after the

communion service at his bedside, he said, "I want to be quiet." These

were his last words. The tired artist had finished his work. The voyage

of life was over. He had won enduring fame.