At first glance, Thomas Cole’s River in the Catskills may seem like a typical nineteenth-century landscape, but it is in fact unusual among American landscapes of its time. Inspired by British notions of the picturesque found in natural scenery and Cole’s own writings on landscape, River in...
At first glance, Thomas Cole’s River in the Catskills may seem like a typical nineteenth-century landscape, but it is in fact unusual among American landscapes of its time. Inspired by British notions of the picturesque found in natural scenery and Cole’s own writings on landscape, River in the Catskills presents an idyllic pastoral world removed from the realities of modern industrialization and urbanization. But one small detail, found upon close inspection of the background, sets it apart: a steam locomotive, an unequivocal symbol of industrial development. This work is considered to be the earliest known American oil painting to depict a train. Cole’s decision to incorporate a train into his natural landscape may refer to the artist’s well-known writings about the destructive impact of industry on nature, particularly his 1836 “Essay on American Scenery.”His ambivalent attitude was shared by many of his contemporaries, who witnessed their world being dramatically transformed, in both positive and negative ways, during the Industrial Revolution. In general, nineteenth-century Americans used the term improvement to refer to modernization, and understood industrialization as necessary to progress, but anxieties lay beneath. Improvement solved certain social ills, like socioeconomic disparity, but created others, like the disease pandemics of newly crowded urban cities. Industrialization also came at the expense of the natural landscape. In his essay, Cole described the process of creating an agrarian landscape out of the American wilderness as the “ravages of the axe.”Thus, while River in the Catskills embraces certain pastoral landscape conventions by depicting a pasture, livestock, and lush greenery, it also subverts this tradition with its image of the train, a sign of improvement, or modernization. Such an observation has led art historian Alan Wallach to describe this painting as an “antipastoral.”  As an uncommissioned work, River in the Catskills stands out among Cole’s several other painted versions of the natural scenery of the Catskills. The artist had moved to the town of Catskill in 1836 with his new wife, Maria Bartow. Over the years he had witnessed the town, also a major shipping port, grow and then decline, with an ultimately unfinished railroad development project that was in process for over ten years. In addition to squandering large sums of money and causing local conflict, the advent of the railroad worried local residents who treasured their familiar natural scenery. It was in this atmosphere that Cole began painting, and thus perhaps preserving, the landscape that surrounded him. Yet River in the Catskills diverges from Cole’s other renditions in its exploration of the tensions between nature and industry. Unlike other versions of the scene, this composition limits the lush greenery and includes the train, along with other markers of encroaching civilization: a collection of houses—probably a town—also appears; steam or smoke rises from the horizon, possibly indicating the presence of another train or a factory. In the foreground stands the scene’s main figure, a man in an eye-catching red coat, holding an axe, amidst a clearing of fallen trees. The attention drawn to the figure raises the question of man’s relationship to nature. Does the path to civilization and its improvements come only at the expense of clearing away the untouched American landscape? Notes 1. Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery,” The American Monthly Magazine, January 1836, 1–12. 2. Ibid., 12. 3. Alan Wallach, “Thomas Cole’s ‘River in the Catskills’ as Antipastoral,” Art Bulletin 84, no. 2 (June 2002): 334–50. Rachel Tolano
Lower left: T Cole/1843
1848, G.F. Allen, New York. 1934-5, with Rains Gallery, New York; with Prosper Guerry, New York; 1935, with J.H. Weitzner, New York; 1935, Parker Morse Hooper, Fall River, Mass.; 1944, with Charles D. Childs, Boston; 1944, sold by Charles D. Childs to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; 1947, gift of Martha C. (Mrs. Maxim) Karolik to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 12, 1947)
Gift of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865