Did you know that the artist known as the father of American landscape painting was born in England? Born in the industrial center of Bolton-le-Moors in 1801, Thomas Cole immigrated to America in 1818. His masterpiece The Hunter’s Return (1845) visually demonstrates the principles of landscape painting he put forth in his artist manifesto “Essay on American Scenery” penned just nine years earlier.
Cole challenged his fellow artists to look around their own backyard and capture the unique beauty of the United States, rather than the European scenes and styles he felt many American artists were then using. He believed that American landscapes should include five crucial elements: wildness, mountains, water, forests, and sky. Can you find them all in The Hunter’s Return?
Besides championing a uniquely American style, Cole also was forward thinking in terms of the environment. After describing the beauty of the American landscape, toward the end of his Essay he remarked
Yet I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away---the ravages of the axe are daily increasing---the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation. The wayside is becoming shadeless, and another generation will behold spots, now rife with beauty, desecrated by what is called improvement; which, as yet, generally destroys Nature’s beauty without substituting that of Art. This is a regret rather than a complaint; such is the road society has to travel; it may lead to refinement in the end, but the traveller who sees the place of rest close at hand, dislikes the road that has so many unnecessary windings.
Look again at The Hunter’s Return. What visual evidence do you think Cole has included to express his concern about westward movement?
Over 150 years later, American artists are still grappling with how the environment is changing. Next time that you’re at the Carter, make sure to visit Cole’s work and tip your hat to this American painting pioneer!