Thomas Cole’s career as an American artist progressed in tandem with the rise of our country’s tourism and industrialization during the 1830s. His artwork played a central role in popularizing scenic destinations throughout the Catskill Mountains and along the Hudson River, while the success of his landscape paintings inspired fellow American artists to focus their aesthetic approach on highlighting the raw, natural beauty of their native environment, effectively launching the first truly “American” style of art: the Hudson River School. This week in St. Joseph, Missouri, the Belt Branch Annex of the Rolling Hills Library opened Wild Land: Thomas Cole and the Birth of American Landscape Painting, an exhibition that not only highlights the artist as our nation’s first leading painter of the American landscape, but also as one of the earliest conservationists to be concerned with the threat of industrial growth and its possible effect on the country’s unspoiled terrain.
Wild Land has quite a lot to offer visitors, including interactive media programs and four interesting lectures headed by local speakers. This exhibition explores Cole’s career and his impact on the trajectory of American art within the context of conservation—while it became clear during the early years of the nineteenth century that tourism in the United States was emerging as a highly profitable industry, Cole recognized that this development and progress exploited the American landscape in such a way that it endangered the natural splendor and magnificence that served as his artistic inspiration. While it took years for others to recognize the importance of protecting the countryside, the detail with which Cole painted each of his sublime scenes was an act of preservation, an effort to memorialize the views he feared might one day no longer exist.
Thomas Cole can be credited with founding the Hudson River School and should also be celebrated for establishing a nation-wide consciousness of the importance of protecting the American landscape—a conservation movement that continues to endure to present day.