Thomas Cole, born in Lancashire, England, was trained as an engraver of woodblocks used for printing calico. Because he did not have any formal education in art, his aesthetic ideas derived from poetry and literature, influences that were strongly to mark his paintings. The Cole family emigrated to America in 1818, but Thomas spent a year alone in Philadelphia before going on to Steubenville, Ohio, where his family had settled. He spent several years in Steubenville designing patterns and probably also engraving woodblocks for his father's wallpaper manufactory. He made his first attempts at landscape painting after learning the essentials of oil painting from a nebulous itinerant portraitist named Stein. In 1823, Cole followed his family to Pittsburgh and began to make detailed and systematic studies of that city's highly picturesque scenery, establishing a procedure of painstakingly detailed drawing that was to become the foundation of his landscape painting.
"During another stay in Philadelphia, from 1823 to 1824, Cole determined to become a painter and closely studied the landscapes of Thomas Doughty and Thomas Birch exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy, His technique improved greatly and his thinking on the special qualities of American scenery began to crystallize. Cole next moved to New York, where the series of works he produced following a sketching trip up the Hudson River in the summer of 1825 brought him to the attention of the city's most important artists and patrons. From then on, his future as a landscape painter was assured. By 1829, when he decided to go to Europe to study firsthand the great works of the past, he had become one of the founding members of the National Academy of Design and was generally recognized as America's leading landscape painter.
"In Europe, Cole's visits to the great galleries of London and Paris and, more important, his stay in Italy from 1831 to 1832, filled his imagination with high-minded themes and ideas. A true Romantic spirit, he sought to express in his painting the elevated moral tone and concern with lofty themes previously the province of history painting. When he returned to America, he found an enlightened patron in the New York merchant Luman Reed, who commissioned from him The Course of Empire (1836), a five-canvas extravaganza depicting the progress of a society from the savage state to an apogee of luxury and, finally, to dissolution and extinction. Most New York patrons, however, preferred recognizable American views, which Cole, his technique further improved by his European experience, was able to paint with increased authority. Although he frequently complained that he would prefer not to have to paint those so-called realistic views, Cole's best efforts in the landscape genre reveal the same high-principled, intellectual content that informs his religious and allegorical works. A second trip to Europe, in 1841-42, resulted in even greater advances in the mastery of his art: his use of color showed greater virtuosity and his representation of atmosphere, especially the sky, became almost palpably luminous.
"Cole's remarkable oeuvre, in addition to naturalistic American and European views, consisted of Gothic fantasies (The Departure and The Return, 1837), religious allegories (Tbe Voyage of Life, 1840), and classicized pastorals (The Dream of Arcadia, 1838). He consistently recorded his thoughts in a formidable body of writing: detailed journals, many poems, and an influential essay on American scenery. Further, he encouraged and fostered the careers of Asher B. Durand and Frederic E. Church, two artists who would most ably continue the painting tradition he had established. Though Cole's unexpected death after a short illness sent a shock through the New York art world, the many achievements that were his legacy provided a firm ground for the continued growth of the school of American landscape.
From: American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School