Optics for the continued existence of planet earth: the paintings of Thomas Cole

The American landscape painter Thomas Cole traded in bizarre monotliths, hypnagogic cartographies, and perhaps most importantly, a mutual distortion practiced between the landscape vistas he painted and the hominid ecologies he populated his scenes with.

This mutualism tautologized the existence (and end) of the human within the sublime, to the degree that the landscapes of Cole’s work often seemed to be merely temporospatial sigils for the actions of the humans rendered within. At first glance, this would seem to enforce an entirely holocentric, scare quotes—bookended “modernistic” optics of ecological space and time: the small, finite human, somehow able to write on epochs, climates, systems, etc.

However, I believe Cole was worrying at an aesthetics that went much deeper than that of a prevailing Anthropo-primacy of the type that dominated his milieu. An avowed naturalist and fierce critic of the becoming-Europe of North America, Cole (and his comrades in the Hudson River School cabal of artists) were engaging in archival work. The subject of their paintings was, in the 19th century, being rapidly deterritorialized by a seething onrush of development shaggoths, dragging rail tracks, trade routes, factories, deforestations, and residential developments in their wake. The Hudson was eventually relegated to a utilitarian causeway. Scenes like that in Cole’s The Oxbow were evaporating before his eyes. Cole’s response was to rehabilitate a natural world so unknowable and chthonic, so chaotic and autocatalytic in its self-assured perpetuation, that one couldn’t even imagine human fetters on it lasting any longer than it allowed them. Cole painted nature as a slavering, roaring angel; beautiful to behold, horrible to think about. Cole’s ecologies utterly envelop, swallow, and expel.


This context is what is most important about Cole’s painting. Previous landscape scenes at this scale had featured humans and nature as equal subjects upon the canvas, or both as recipient parties for the emenations of gods or other divine visits. Cole’s work places nature at the head of the pantheon; the human is nothing, but becomes everything. In Cole’s Voyage of Life (or his other sequential work, The Course of Empire) series, the human warps the landscape around them in accordance to the rules of some strange attraction. Instead of static poses and impeccable timing (capturing lighting, a sunset, or other perfectly staged environmental condition), Cole presents a scene as a ephemeral blink in time—in ictu(s) mundus. His sequential works are keyframes of a fatalistic shuffle towards oblivion, either in the case of a single human life, or an allegorical neo-Rome beset by barbarians and hubris alike. And as the human contingent in the painting exits the scene, the environmental context does too—as the sun sets, as night falls, joining in solemn requiem with ghostly mourners. But as Cole depicts the death of the human and humanity as twinned to the end of all things, he also firmly recuperates the hominid in his ecology—having effected changes on an environmental scale, the human has disappeared, and the sun will rise on a refreshing new world, scrubbed free of the vainglorious pests that plagued it the day before.

Thomas Cole—The Course of Empire: Desolation. 1836.