- Thomas Cole, American, 1801-1848
- Born: England
About the Artist
Thomas Cole was born in England (1801), the only boy in a family of seven children. His family moved to America in 1818, where his father started a wallpaper factory. At the age of 18, Cole was given a book on painting and fell in love with the medium: “This book was my companion day and night, nothing could separate us—my usual avocations were neglected—painting was all in all to me. I had made some proficiency in drawing, and had engraved a little in both wood and copper, but not until now had my passion for painting been thoroughly roused—my love for the art exceeded all love—my ambition grew, and in my imagination I pictured the glory of being a great painter.” Cole was a self-taught artist who eventually became a very successful landscape painter. He spent his childhood in an industrial area of England, and upon moving to America, fell in love with the landscape of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and later with the Hudson River valley. He was not content with being, as he said, “a mere leaf painter,” and felt the need to take the field of landscapes to a higher and more sophisticated realm. He sought to bring moral and religious meaning to his landscapes.
What Inspired It
The theme of Thomas Cole’s Dream of Arcadia is man’s relationship to unspoiled nature. Cole felt that the American wilderness was beginning to disappear as a result of the industrialization of the nation. In this painting, Cole harks back to the land of Arcadia, a rustic, secluded area of ancient Greece. The people who lived in Arcadia led simple, happy lives, in harmony with nature. Cole creates an idyllic image of an unblemished landscape—one where people frolic in the trees, sheep roam the hillside, and children play in the gentle river. Cole was greatly inspired by the work of Claude Lorrain, a French landscape artist who painted roughly 200 years before him. “Claude, to me, is the greatest of all landscape painters,” said Cole. Cole used many of the same artistic devices that Claude used in his paintings, such as the luminous distance, the large trees in the foreground that frame the painting, and elements of architecture in the middle ground. Claude often emphasized the effects of light in his paintings—something Cole focused on as well in Dream of Arcadia.
Cole used the sunlight to create contrasts of shaded and warmly lit areas. Highlighted details create a visual path back into the painting.
On the cliff sits a complete Doric temple bathed in sunlight. The Doric order was the earliest and simplest of three orders of Ancient Greek or classical architecture. Notice the impossible reflection of the temple in the stream below—a detail that adds to the magical feeling of Arcadia.
The smoke rising from the front porch of the temple signifies the burning of a ritual sacrifice.
A city sits in the distant background, cut off from the foreground by a river and some trees. In the groves, forest, and fields of Arcadia, the humans find surroundings that are beautiful and fresh.
Under the trees on the left side of the painting young men and women relax, play music, and dance. Their clothing seems rural and is reminiscent of styles of ancient Greece.
The shepherd can be seen as a symbol of man’s harmony with nature through his relationship to his natural surroundings.
Despite his skill with landscapes, Cole always had a hard time painting people. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “Worst of all is the inhabitants of [Arcadia]—I found them very troublesome, very—They have almost murdered me!”
The people in the left foreground are participating in a ceremony that involves a herme, which is a square stone pillar surmounted by a bust. This particular bust could be an image of Pan, who was the guardian of Arcadia. Due to the large number of flowers, it could also be a ceremony dedicated to Flora, the goddess of flowers.
Cole’s signature was discovered on a boulder in the foreground while the painting was being cleaned in 1967. Prior to this, there were questions as to whether this particular painting was the original, since it measured smaller than the recorded measurements of Cole’s work. But when it was removed from the frame, it became apparent that the canvas had been folded back for framing.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Have students envision they are in the painting. They could pick a spot to “sit” in the painting and write about what they would sense, see, touch, hear, smell or think about. How would sitting in this painting make them feel?
- Have students pretend they are one of the people or animals they see in the painting and write a monologue about what their life is like as that character. Use this exercise to help students develop being able to imagine a detailed sensory experience or someone else’s perspective from what they perceive in the painting. Have students share what they write and discuss the various ideas about being a part of Cole’s landscape.
- Dream of Arcadia represents Thomas Cole’s ideal environment. Ask students what their ideal environment would be. Have them draw or write about their paradise. Ask them to give specifics about why their ideal place is so desirable to be in. Have them write a story about something they might experience there. Have them compare their paradises and the different kinds of stories that take place.
- Thomas Cole considered famous French landscape painter Claude Lorrain to be a great inspiration, calling him “the greatest of all landscape painters.” Have advanced art students research some of Claude’s works and choose one as inspiration for their own landscape. Have students focus on one element of Claude’s painting, such as his compositional techniques, application of paint, or color scheme, and try to emulate it in their own work. As a class, have them compare which component of Claude’s painting they mimicked and why they chose that particular element for inspiration. Analyze the similarities and differences between Claude’s, Cole’s and their own landscapes.