On Naturalists Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Cole

Essay by durtyUniversity, Bachelor'sA+, November 2009

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The early to mid-nineteenth century in America was a time of rapid social change and enlightenment that permeated into many of the humanities of the time including art, poetry, lecturing, and literature; and two major contributors, who also advocated well ahead of their time the preservation and interpretation of Nature in her relationship with humankind, were Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and Thomas Cole (1801-1848). Thoreau, a philosopher and versed writer of Nature, was a contemporary of Cole’s for a brief period in the 1830’s; however he was not influenced by Cole as much as he was congruently advancing his naturalistic theories. Thomas Cole, a painter, poet, and essay writer, was a key figure that led the budding art movement known as the Hudson River School and popularized landscape painting in the United States. Both of these men expressed the inherited duty of humans, with the tools of social action and individualistic drive, to preserve Nature from the exponentially industrial growth of humans and to understand the embodiment of God through the beauty of Nature.

Interestingly, Thoreau and Cole, although somewhat contemporaries, led drastically different lives while delivering a similar message when looking at the aggregate of their lives’ works.

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts in July of 1817 to a somewhat destitute family of six (two sisters and one brother). Although his ancestry had been more affluent, by the time Henry was born his family was essentially poor. It wasn’t until the mid 1820’s that the Thoreau family finally settled down with a successfully pencil-making business that could give them some prosperity. As Thoreau matured, his mother would chaperone (eventually he went alone) long walks or trips into the depths of their natural surroundings and impress on him the majesty of his natural world. These activities were obviously the foundation for his philosophies and writings, and his love of Nature was clearly an early trait rather than a later revelation. Thoreau was fortunate enough to attend Harvard College, and after graduating in 1837, he delivered a stunning address at his commencement that would foreshadow the majority of his work:"The order of things should be somewhat reversed; the seventh should be man's day of toil, wherein to earn his living by the sweat of his brow; and the other six his Sabbath of the affections and the soul,--in which to range this widespread garden, and drink in the soft influences and sublime revelations of nature.”(Henry David Thoreau, 2)When Thoreau returned from Harvard, he and his brother John formed a private school after Henry could not find any work as a teacher (The United States was in a deep economic depression at the time). However, Thoreau had to close their small school when his brother John came down with lockjaw, and Henry did not want to continue teaching alone. During this time (1839-1841), Henry had come under the apprenticeship of Ralph Emerson, a renowned writer and figure of the Transcendentalist movement of which was at its most robust point. Often seen as a radical, Emerson reinforced Thoreau’s naturalistic paradigm and was considered a naturalist as much as he was a philosopher. When Henry’s brother John passed in 1842, Henry wanted to author a tale of a trip he and John had taken up the Concord and Merrimack Rivers a few years earlier. Emerson partitioned Thoreau a plot of land on Walden Pond—about two miles south of Concord—to build a cabin that Thoreau would then live in and write his first book; he lived in this simple cabin for two years, two months, and two days while writing Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Unfortunately, the book was a disaster commercially, selling just a couple hundred copies.

During his time at Walden Pond, Thoreau was incubating his Transcendentalism as well as writing his prose. He was a heated abolitionist and to protest slavery, as well as the war against Mexico, he refused to pay his poll tax, under threat of imprisonment. He was eventually arrested and much to his distaste his aunt paid his tax and the jailor had to literally throw Thoreau out of his jail. Thoreau wanted the case to go to a court so he could protest his cause to end slavery, but his aunt could not stand to let him get entangled in the justice system when she felt he had done nothing wrong. Instead, Thoreau lectured at the Concord Lyceum, and later other lecture halls in New England, about the duty of people to follow “higher laws” when the civil laws or policy are immoral or unjust, such as slavery or unjust wars. He later published his lectures as “Resistance to Civil Government,” but these papers have become known as “Civil Disobedience,” and consequently became a manifesto for bringing about social and political change by disobeying the law in mass. For example, Mahatma Gandhi used his philosophies as a backbone to his peaceful revolution movement in India.

Another set of lectures that Thoreau accumulated were ones that described his simple life he lived while living at Walden Pond, and these lectures became fairly popular and in demand around New England in the couple years after he left Walden Pond. He began to compile these lectures into essays that would become his opus. Because of his dismal failure with A Week, he spent the next few years constantly revising his work until in 1854 he published Walden, Or Life in the Woods. The book would be known just as Walden after the second printing. This is Thoreau’s golden nugget that he contributes to American Literature, his prime masterpiece that has been used to pry the nature-loving human animal out of an industrialized culture. In the book he uses the prevailing Transcendentalist philosophies to merge with his love of a simple life; and by his accord he defines his simple life—living in the woods by a pond—as his nirvana with nature. He does not merely say that you need to live in a cabin in the woods to enjoy life, but that one needs to understand their Nature that surrounds them and live life to the fullest in harmony with their Nature:"I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one… The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains…I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dream with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness (Walden, 498-499)."This excerpt is a snapshot of his revelation into liberating himself through some solitude and simple living. It appears that he literates in a Western, poetic tone what the Native Americans generally understand about nature in an almost innate way. Even though his Walden retreat was a mere mile and a half away from his hometown, he could still be spiritually liberated with a mild amount of abstraction in a completely natural environment, which can explain this work’s huge success as a literary classic, because it can be applied and understood by almost anyone.

Thomas Cole was born in 1801 to James and Mary Cole in Lancashire, England; he was seventh of eight children. At the age of seventeen, the Cole family moved to Steubenville, Ohio in 1819, partially inspired by Thomas’ adoring of American beauty that he read about in books as he was growing up. Cole made a trip the West Indies in 1820 that kindled his interest in dramatic landscapes as he sketched and studied the mountainous islands. After a few years dabbling in poetry and literary composition, he reneged and followed the art of portrait painting as a way to begin his career. His portraits were hardly successful and after some brief moves to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia while polishing his landscaping skills (a genre he was much more interested) at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he settled again with his family in New York. Cole ventured into the Hudson River Valley shortly after settling in New York and painted an array of landscapes inspired from his trip, with three paintings capturing the attention of John Trumbull, Asher Durand, and William Dunlap; all prominent artists and contributors to past and then current movements. Amazingly, his style and messages were unique at the time, as romantic landscapes was not a style embodied by any particular artist or movement at the time, so as a result “his fame spread like wildfire,” noted Durand at the time (Thomas Cole, 2).

Cole was hit with an avalanche of commissioned work over the next six years from wealthy patrons in America and Europe. Thomas was sent to England and worked and exhibited with other artists before traveling to France and eventually visiting and using studios in Italy. While in Italy (1831-1832) he incorporated ancient ruins into his landscapes from observing the decrepit castles in the countryside, and it was from then on that he would inject an emotional yet desolate representation of antiquity into otherwise all-natural landscapes, making for an even more unique pairing of objects. Thomas arrived back in New York in 1832 and was greeted with one of his most remarkable commissions labeled “The Course of Empire,” a five canvas set depicting a particular landscape scene that grows from unadulterated nature, through the rise of wealth and then eventually “War” and “Desolation;” this work was finished in 1836. In the latter half of 1836, Cole married Maria Bartow and settled in the Catskill area at a place known as Cedar Grove, a site that now serves as a historical site for Thomas Cole. It was at Cedar Grove that he essentially lived out the rest of his life nestled in the area that he loved to live in and loved to paint, and it was there that he painted the majority of his works.

The above marquee shows that Cole really put more into his paintings than just the landscape, albeit this was the most dramatic of his works, but as an astute naturalist, he was interpreting the resilience of nature against the inevitable rise and fall of empires. Cole took a few trips back to Europe to work with some English and Italian artists, and it was usually after these visits that Thomas would engage a more dramatic scene or story in his work, but for the majority of his works he would try to paint purely natural landscapes, usually deleting man-made objects if they actually existed in the view he was using. To add to the subjugation he imposed on his scenes, he infused Native American individuals or tribes into some paintings to bring a classicelement into the work. Observe Scene from "The Last of the Mohicans," Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund:What is most notable about Thomas Cole nowadays is that he was the “father” of the Hudson River School of art, which was a movement centered around his later years (1840’s). This movement included artists mostly from America, but even had some European participants. The Hudson River School is attributed to solidifying the acceptance and importance of this landscaping model to painting, and brought the style from an amateur level to the prestige of portraits (which was the most popular commission) and religious storytelling. The Hudson River School was a complement to the pastoral sentiments of romantics and naturalist of the 19th century, movements that plead for the coexistence of nature and humans. We find these movements develop concurrently with literature of the time such as Ralph Emerson’s Nature and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.

While Thoreau admired Thomas Cole’s work when he exhibited them in New York, Thoreau also was struck by the use of lighting in Cole’s paintings. This was something that would eventually define an offshoot of the Hudson River School known now as Luminism (a term given to the style after it had waned). Thoreau also noted the composition style of Cole’s and others’ works was one that took the artist to an extreme area and then back in the studio to essentially “compose” a new landscape that was an amalgamation of many landscapes, or of a landscape in a fantasy setting. Thoreau dissented on this style slightly because he believed when he “painted” scenery by describing it in writing that he showed Nature “as it is,” instead of “Nature as somebody has portrayed her” (Smithson, 95). It is found then that the main schism between Thoreau and Cole in the representation of Nature is in the method of the composition, as in “actual view” versus “interpretive view.” Nonetheless, the contributions of these two artists remain aligned. It was the pure revelation of beauty, and even to a point of nationalism in their pride of “American Beauty,” that inspired these two men to devote their life’s work to plainly, and most times bluntly, representing the utility of Nature as well as its inspirational magnificence to a public that was in the midst of a booming industrial revolution. Both Cole and Thoreau recognized the threat of human encroachment into Nature, and without insult to the everyday citizen, showed them the alternate mode of life that is analogous to brokering a peace deal between two warring factions. It is postulated that this crass yet easy-to-swallow delivery of critical awareness that these artists brought into their respective fields is why their works not only propelled them to fame, but also allowed their message to reach and influence those who absorbed these works.

References“Cedar Grove: The Thomas Cole National Historic Site.” Cedar Grove. N.p. n.d. Web. 28 Sep 2009. http://www.thomascole.orgCole, Thomas. Scene from “The Last of the Mohican,” Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund. 1827. Oil on canvas. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Bequest of Alfred Smith, 1868.

Cole, Thomas. The Course of Empire: The Savage State. 1834. Oil on canvas. Collection of The New-York Historical Society, 1858.1.

Cole, Thomas. The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State. 1834. Oil on canvas. Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 1858.2.

Cole, Thomas. The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire. 1836. Oil on canvas. Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 1858.3.

Cole, Thomas. The Course of Empire: Destruction 1836. Oil on canvas. Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 1858.4.

Cole, Thomas. The Course of Empire: Desolation. 1836. Oil on canvas. Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 1858.5.

"Henry David Thoreau." Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: Colonization to the American Renaissance, 1640-1865. Gale Research, 1988. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2009. http://galenet.galegroup.com.libproxy.mpc.edu/servlet/BioRCNoble, Louis L. The Life and Works of Thomas Cole. 3rd ed. New York, 1856. Print.

Smithson, Isaiah. “Thoreau, Thomas Cole, and Asher Durand: Composing the American Landscape.” Thoreau’s Sense of Place: Essays in American Environmental Writing. Ed. Schneider, Richard J., et al. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000. 93-114. Print.

"Thomas Cole."Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2009. http://galenet.galegroup.com.libproxy.mpc.edu/servlet/BioRCThoreau, Henry David. Walden: Or, Life in the Woods. New York and Boston, 1893. Print.