Thomas Cole (1801–1848)
The Hunter’s Return, 1845
Oil on canvas
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas

American scenery always served Thomas Cole as a point of departure for storytelling. When he was commissioned to paint a major work for an important New York patron in 1844, the artist created The Hunter's Return based on an idea he had imagined several decades earlier. Lovers of American scenic views might have recognized the setting as an area in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, but for Cole this place was representative of a larger idea: the idea of wilderness, of an experience that defined America and revealed a fundamental truth about human nature. In this Eden-like, sun-filled vale, a family lives simply and innocently in harmony with nature. The painting speaks of domestic bliss—a father and son returning home from the hunt to a loving welcome. The details that lend charm and narrative to the scene also convey the full force of Cole's moral tale: the fall from grace comes with the defiling of nature as settlers move ever forward toward civilization.

Artist Biography

Born in the English industrial center of Bolton-le-Moors, England, Thomas Cole (1801–1848) was apprenticed to a textile designer before immigrating to America in 1818. Just seven years later his first paintings were purchased by eminent artists of the day, and his reputation soared. In 1836 Cole settled in Catskill, New York, on the Hudson River. He became a leader of the Hudson River School, which was never a school in the literal sense, but rather a loosely knit association of New York City–based artists who created a new aesthetic movement. Their style was rooted in Romanticism, the idea that nature was imbued with the American identity, and the concept of the divinely ordained destiny of the United States. These artists traveled the Hudson River to sketch the compelling beauty and magnificence of the area and, in the process, created new standards for art that expressed powerful ideas about spirituality, culture, and national identity. Cole's last years in Catskill were marked by increasing introspection and deepening religious faith. After he died suddenly in 1848, the revered nature poet William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878) gave the funeral oration for his friend, a painter whose intellect, spirit, and faith were always grounded in his love of nature.