American Art Collection

From the Collection: Thomas Cole’s Storm in the Wilderness

A number of the artists featured in the special exhibition Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School can also be found in the galleries of the Milwaukee Art Museum. This is the first a series of blog posts that will highlight Milwaukee’s artworks during the run of the exhibition.

Often called the Founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole (1801–1848) holds an important place in the development of American landscape painting. Cole’s Storm in the Wilderness, from the Layton Art Collection and on view in the exhibition, is a good example of the power of his work.

Let’s start with some background. Since the Renaissance, some subjects were considered less important than others. At the top of this hierarchy were historical paintings, which depicted critical events from ancient mythology, politics, and religion. Below that were portraits and genre scenes that captured important persons and contemporary society. And at the very bottom was landscape. Why was that? Landscapes were seen as an inadequate subject for expressing human emotions and societal values.

Cole challenged this idea. To him, and many of his painter colleagues, nature was the province of God. For Cole, since both humans and nature are God’s creations, there must be emotional and intellectual connections between the two. In addition, he also saw nature as a tool for nationalism, as well as a vehicle for political commentary. The American landscape was one of the things that made the young country so unique: Europe was filled with the ruins of the past, whereas America was the new world.

With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the Layton Art Collection’s painting by Cole. Storm in the Wilderness, like so many of Cole’s paintings, places the viewer directly in the scene. Spreading before you is a dark and hilly forest with rocky cliffs, and dark stormy clouds swirling above. It is as if the viewer is standing on the cliff and experiences the storm itself.

Thomas Cole (American, b. England, 1801–1848), Storm in the Wilderness, 1826–28. Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection, Inc., Purchase L1968.25. Photo credit: Larry Sanders.
Thomas Cole (American, b. England, 1801–1848), Storm in the Wilderness, 1826–28. Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection, Inc., Purchase L1968.25. Photo credit: Larry Sanders.

In the foreground there is a tree with a twisted trunk, its branches blowing from the force of the wind. The colors of the variety of leaves suggest autumn, a season considered unique to the American landscape, and one integral to the development of the Hudson River School. All of this conveys a tormented tone. Yet, in the distance there is light, suggesting a feeling of hope and peace.

How can we relate this scene to human experience? First, we can link it to everyday life. Who hasn’t had a moment when everything seemed bleak? In this case the tree could represent a person, reflecting human emotion in its form and posture. The storm might be taking its toll on the tree, beating it with heavy winds, but it is still standing. And if the tree rides out the storm there is a light and peace yet to come. Surely everyone has had a time like that in his or her life.

For a second interpretation, look at the scene as a religious statement. Like many at the time, Cole saw God in the landscapes he was painting, and, in fact, he once famously stated that art is “man’s lowly imitation of the creative power of the almighty.” According to Cole, God was capable of both great wrath and great love, and put humans through many trials, but still provided the promise of a happy future. In Storm in the Wilderness, the diminishing gale shows divine power as a force to be feared and respected, yet the light in the distance represents the love that blesses humanity.

A third way to consider the painting is in terms of national culture and politics. Remember, the U.S. had become an independent country just fifty years before Cole painted Storm in the Wilderness. In comparison to civilizations that had existed for hundreds or even thousands of years, the U.S. was a newborn. Despite this political youthfulness, the untouched and rugged terrain of the country indicated the nation’s potential. The clearing sky in the distance alludes to America’s exceptionalism and its promise.

Although Thomas Cole’s influence on American landscape painting is monumental, his career was relatively short. Born in England, he moved to America in 1818. He eventually settled in New York; after falling in love with the scenery there, he decided to capture it in painting. He was mostly a self-­taught artist who went hiking and sketching in the Catskill Mountains and then would paint from his sketches in a studio. A popular story tells of Cole’s “discovery” by older artists Asher B. Durand (American, 1796–1886) and John Trumbull (American, 1756–1843), when they purchased three paintings Cole had on exhibition in New York. Cole was a founding member of the National Academy of Design in New York, the most important art institution in America. Cole died unexpectedly in 1848 at the age of 47. His sudden loss left a hole in the American artistic community.

–Allison Barr, Curatorial Intern

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