Glossary

  • American Art-Union

    Incorporated in 1840, this organization sought to raise appreciation of national art by enrolling subscribers, who received benefits: free admission to the gallery of the Art-Union, engraved reproductions of important paintings in the collection, and the opportunity to win original works through a lottery. One of its most attractive offerings was Cole's The Voyage of Life (1839-40). Members also received James Smillie's engraved reproduction of Youth. Although the organization enjoyed great popular appeal, it was disbanded in 1852 due to financial and legal challenges.

  • Beautiful

    A landscape type defined by gentle sinuous forms, soft contours and harmonious, balanced compositions. Usually, this aesthetic category governs depictions of the "civilized" landscape, as seen in Cole's View of Florence from San Minato (1837).

  • Bread and Cheese Club

    Also known as "The Lunch Club." Founded in 1820 by the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, the Bread and Cheese Club was a lunchtime gathering of writers, artists, and other New York intellectuals who met to discuss art and culture. Thomas Cole, William Cullen Bryant, and Asher B. Durand were all regular attendees of the club's meetings.

  • Canajoharie & Catskill Railroad

    A railroad line running from the town of Catskill to the Erie Canal and Erie Railroad. Major construction for the Canajoharie & Catskill Railroad line began in 1836, the same year that Thomas Cole permanently moved to Catskill. The line began running in 1839, but unreliable financing and a flood in 1840 caused New York State to sell the line in 1842. Cole was disturbed by the railroad's destruction of the Catskill landscape, and he depicted the Canajoharie & Catskill Railroad in his 1843 painting River in the Catskills.

  • Catskill Creek

    Rises in the Catskill Mountains and runs generally southeast, broadening just west of the Village of Catskill before emptying into the Hudson River. Catskill Creek is a short walk from Cedar Grove and provided Cole with constant inspiration.

  • Catskill Mountain House

    Originally known as the Pine Orchard Hotel and opened to the public in 1824, the Catskill Mountain House was a premiere destination for Catskill tourists in the early- to mid-nineteenth century. The resort was built on South Mountain in the Catskills, overlooking the Hudson River Valley. At first only comprised of ten private rooms, the hotel grew to accommodate up to nearly 200 guests, who would stay for a few nights to see the surrounding scenery, including Kaaterskill Falls. The hotel's popularity declined after the Civil War, and it eventually fell into ruin. On 25 January 1963, the New York State Conservation Department, amid protest from preservationists and the local population, burned the decrepit hotel to the ground. Cole painted many views of the Catskill Mountain House, such as: A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning.

  • Catskill Mountains

    A chain of mountains running through South Central New York State, northwest of New York City and west of the Hudson River, the Catskills are part of the Allegheny Plateau. Mahican and Munsee Indians first inhabited the Catskills, followed by Dutch settlers in the 1620s and 1630s. The Euro-American population grew rapidly following the Revolutionary War, and by the nineteenth century, the nearby town of Catskill had become a center of bustling trade and activity. Thomas Cole first came to the Catskills in 1825, where he was one of the first to paint the now-famous mountain scenery, permanently moving there in 1836. Cole had a clear view of the Catskill Mountain range from the porch of his home at Cedar Grove.

  • Cedar Grove

    Thomas Cole's home in Catskill, New York. Cedar Grove was originally owned by the Thomson brothers, bachelor merchants who oversaw the orchards, vineyards, and grain fields that covered the 110-acre property. The Thomson brothers also raised a variety of livestock on the land to supplement their income. Their extended family lived in a three-story Federal-style house that still stands today. The property once included a multitude of outbuildings, some of which Cole used for painting studios as early as 1833. In 1836, Cole married one of the Thomson nieces, Maria Bartow, and moved in with his wife's family. Cole and Maria's family grew to include five children: Theodore (Theddy), Mary, Emily, Elizabeth (who died in infancy), and Thomas Cole II. When John Thomson died in 1846, Cedar Grove passed into the hands of Cole, who himself died only two years later.

  • Chiaroscuro

    Italian for "clear-dark." Chiaroscuro is a painting technique in which the artist contrasts light and dark in order to create a sense of depth and volume. This use of intense shadowing also renders a painting more dramatic and suspenseful, as in Cole's The Course of Empire: Destruction (1836).

  • Composition

    The art of combining the visual elements of a picture into a satisfying whole. In Cole's landscapes, such elements include lines and shapes that create an illusion of depth, a recognizable foreground, middleground and background, and framing devices that accentuate the main focus of the scene.

  • Democrats [Jacksonians]

    The early-nineteenth-century political party of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson, who believed in voting equality and the rights of the common man. Andrew Jackson served as president of the United States from 1829-37, the period during which Cole created The Course of Empire (1834-36). Cole's third painting in the series, Consummation, can be read as a critique of Jackson and his party.

  • En plein air

    French for "in the open air." The term refers to the artistic practice of sketching or painting outdoors in order to accurately record the landscape. Cole's sketches Mt. Etna from Taormina and The Ruins at Taormina (both done in 1842) are examples of his en plein air work.

  • Federalists

    The political party led by George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, who wished to preserve an aristocratic hierarchy in the United States, and reserve voting rights to men who owned property. Cole, who was brought up under the English class system, identified with his wealthy patrons such as Stephen Van Rensselaer and Philip Hone, and therefore strongly supported the Federalist party.

  • Genre

    In classifying paintings, genre categories are based on subject matter. In nineteenth-century academic theory, there was a strict hierarchy of genres, with history painting at the top and representations of inanimate forms (landscapes and still lifes) at the bottom. Cole sought to translate "landscape into history" with ambitious series such as The Course of Empire (1834-36) and The Voyage of Life (1839-40), in order to elevate the genre of painting in which he specialized.

  • Geology

    Study of rocks, minerals, and fossils. Geology was a popular science in the nineteenth century, studied by elite gentlemen like Cole's patrons. Cole noted geological features in his sketchbooks, read J.L. Comstock's Outlines of Geology, and kept his own collection of rocks and minerals (now in the collection of Cedar Grove).

  • Ground

    An artist applies a ground (sometimes called a primer) after the painting support has been sized. The ground consists of a layer of underpaint in a white or tinted hue. The color of the ground unifies the artist's varied color palette.

  • History Painting

    Usually large in scale, history paintings depict events from the imaginary or ancient past that have deep human significance and convey moral lessons to contemporary viewers. Once considered the most noble of the genres of painting, history painting requires that the artist render complex, multifigural compositions filled with convincing, heroic human forms. Cole's The Course of Empire: Consummation (1835-36) is the artist's most ambitious attempt to capture the scope of history painting within the landscape genre.

  • Hudson River Portfolio

    In the summer of 1820 the Irish-born artist William Guy Wall (1792–after 1864) went on an extended sketching tour of the Hudson River Valley and its environs. Master printmaker John Hill (1770–1850) engraved Wall's watercolors for The Hudson River Portfolio, which was published by Henry J. Megarey between 1821 and 1825. Long considered a cornerstone in the development of American printmaking and landscape painting, the Portfolio's twenty topographical views, with accompanying descriptive texts, follow almost the entire course of the Hudson River. The first series of prints to make Americans aware of the beauty and sublimity of their own scenery, the seminal Portfolio helped to stimulate national pride and cultural identity. Wall is often seen as a forerunner of the Hudson River School. See Wall, View Near Hudson (1820).

  • Hudson River School

    A group of mid- to late-nineteenth-century American landscape painters, including artists such as Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Frederic Edwin Church, Jasper Francis Cropsey, George Inness, Sanford Gifford, Charles Herbert Moore, and others. The term "Hudson River School" was first coined around 1879, possibly by the art critic Clarence Cooke. The name initially referred to the members of the National Academy of Design, who lived and painted in the Hudson River Valley; eventually the "Hudson River School" came to encompass nearly all nineteenth-century American landscape painters who worked in the East. Hudson River School painters favored a highly illusionistic style of carefully rendered, crisply defined forms. They studied both nature and previous art to achieve precise effects of light and atmosphere, and they excelled at rendering rocks, trees, skies and bodies of water. Unlike European contemporaries such as J.M.W. Turner, they avoided painterly flourishes that called attention to artistic technique. This has led some critics to judge the Hudson River School as less adventurous than other landscape traditions in the nineteenth century, but stylistic differences emerged out of a specifically American social and intellectual context. American artists' reliance on print sources for their models may have given rise to a crisp linearity. A deeper explanation derives from the artists' belief that nature was an arena of revealed divinity. Stylistic innovation and bravura technique violated their sense of appropriate humility before, in Cole's words, nature's "purer love divine."

  • Kaaterskill Clove

    A large gap in the Catskill Mountains, following the course of Kaaterskill Creek from west to east. Kaaterskill Clove was a center of the tanning industry in the early nineteenth century, and turnpikes running through the Clove gave tanners, tourists, and artists alike access to the surrounding scenery. Cole was one such artist, painting The Clove, Catskills in 1827.

  • Kaaterskill Falls

    Also known as Catskill Falls, Catterskill Falls, Cattskill Falls, Kauterskill Falls, Kaatskill Falls, and Kattskill Falls. At 260 feet tall, Kaaterskill Falls is one of the highest waterfalls in New York State, consisting of two separate cataracts. Kaaterskill Falls is located on the north side of Kaaterskill Clove in the Catskill Mountains. The Falls were a popular tourist attraction in the nineteenth century and a favorite site for landscape painters. Cole created many paintings of the Falls from varying viewpoints, including Falls of the Kaaterskill (1826).

  • Knickerbocker, The

    A monthly New York literary magazine, The Knickerbocker was published between 1833 and 1865. William Cullen Bryant and James Fenimore Cooper were frequent contributors, and Thomas Cole wrote two essays on his trip to Italy for the magazine in 1844 (including his poem dedicated to Mount Etna).

  • Luminism

    A mode of landscape painting that emerged in the work of some Hudson River School painters around the 1860s. Characteristically, these landscapes include soft forms, light colors, and a hazy unifying envelope of light. Works of this sort indicate a mid-century shift in landscape painters' attitude towards the environment. The term itself, now controversial, was not coined until 1954 by John Baur in his essay "American Luminism." So-called luminist works generally evoke a quiet and peaceful contemplation of nature. Sanford Gifford painted in the luminist style, seen in works such as Gorge in the Mountains (Kauterskill Clove) (1862).

  • Muller

    A tool made of stone or glass used to grind pigments on a flat stone in order to mix them with a linseed oil binder. Before the 1840s, this was the laborious process necessary for producing oil paints. Only after Cole's time did premixed paints in collapsible metal tubes became widely available. In the 1990s, two mullers and a grinding stone were found in Cole's "Old Studio."

  • National Academy of Design

    An art organization founded in 1826 (with the help of Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand) for the purpose of exhibiting original works of art by contemporary American artists. Cole and many other Hudson River School artists participated in the National Academy's annual exhibition, while William Cullen Bryant gave an annual series of lectures on Greek and Roman mythology there. The National Academy of Design remains to this day an association of professional artists in New York, where it maintains a museum.

  • Palette

    (1) A thin wooden board that rests on an artist's arm, used to mix paints (several of Cole's palettes are in the Cedar Grove collection); (2) The distinctive set of hues that characterizes a painter's color choices.

  • Panorama

    Large paintings wrapping around the inner walls of a rotunda, originating in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. Guests would climb a tower to a viewing platform where they would then see the paintings as if from the top of a mountain, giving them a feeling of awe and power. Cole may have seen panoramas on his first trip to Europe in 1829, and their influence can be traced in works such as View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow) (1836).

  • Pastoral

    A type of landscape defined by an idealized, peaceful view of nature harkening back to an age of rural farming, animal husbandry and simple rustic pleasures. See, for example, Cole's The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State (1834).

  • Picturesque

    A landscape type defined by irregular, rugged, and uncultivated forms that are charming to the eye, such as ragged trees, unruly streams, and rocky cliffs. An example of this type of landscape is Cole's Lake with Dead Trees (1825).

  • Romanticism

    An artistic and intellectual movement originating in Europe in the late eighteenth century and migrating to America in the early nineteenth century. Cole, with his heightened interest in nature, emphasis on dramatic expressions of the imagination, and dissatisfaction with established social and artistic institutions, was the quintessential romantic artist.  In works such as View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (1855), Cole provided himself and his audience with a romantic escape from the complications of a rapidly industrializing America.

  • Scumbled

    To soften the surface of a painting by applying color thinly and lightly with an almost dry brush. Scumbling, such as that seen in Cole's unfinished Lake Mohonk (c. 1846), leaves a brushy painterly surface.

  • Size

    A coat of glue or resin applied to raw canvas to protect and preserve the support. Unsized canvases quickly deteriorate when they come into contact with linseed oil, an essential ingredient in oil paint—hence the need to prepare the canvas with sizing.

  • Sketch Club

    Founded in 1827 (the date is often incorrectly given as 1829), the Sketch Club brought landscape artists together for meals, socializing, and professional conversations. Cole hosted the first meeting of the Sketch Club in his rooms on 2 Greene Street in New York City. Most of the other Hudson River School artists were also members, as well as important writers, critics and patrons. The Century Club—an organization founded in 1847 and still in existence today—evolved from the Sketch Club and included many of the same members.

  • Sublime

    The combined feelings of awe, pleasure, and fear associated with viewing a dangerous landscape, such as the summit of a mountain or a large waterfall. The viewer becomes entranced by the infinity of nature and forgets himself in the contemplation of the landscape; only afterwards does the viewer realize that he has experienced the sublime. Cole often tried to communicate this feeling in his landscape paintings: see for example, The Clove, Catskills (1827).

  • Support

    The surface on which an artist paints. Cole used both canvases and panels made of wood as supports for his paintings.

  • Tanning industry

    Tanning is the process by which uncured animal hides are made into leather. Tanning was the most important industry in the Catskills from the early 1820s until the Civil War, and its center was Kaaterskill Clove. Uncured hides were sent to the Clove tanneries, where they were treated with tannin, a chemical compound found in the local hemlock trees. Once the hides had been cured with tannin, they were then sent from the Clove to New York or Boston, where the leather was made into finished goods. Tannery owners created improved turnpike roads through the Clove to aid in the transportation of hides, thereby providing easy access to the mountains for traders, tourists and artists.

  • Trompe l'oeil

    French for "deceives the eye." Trompe l'oeil is an approach to painting in which the artist uses shadow, perspective, and meticulous detail to create a three-dimensional illusion on a flat surface, testing the viewer's ability to judge what is real and what is merely a representation. Cole used this technique in The Architect's Dream (1841) by painting curtains on the edges of the canvas in an attempt to trick the viewer into believing he is looking through a window onto a real scene.

  • View

    A landscape view is a more or less "accurate" depiction of an actual place such as Cole's View on the Catskill, Early Autumn (1837), whereas a landscape composition refers to composite views of multiple locations arranged to suit the painter's sensibilities. These distinctions, however, are a matter of degree. In Cole's work, as in the work of virtually all artists, the view is filtered through the painter's imagination and aesthetic priorities. Cole's allegorical subjects, such as The Voyage of Life (1839-40), are several steps further removed from any locatable place, although Cole used en plein air studies to compose such landscapes.

Related Information

This glossary is a selective list of art history terms that arise often in discussions of the Hudson River School.

For more information about Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School see our educational website Explore Thomas Cole.