Thomas Cole: Evolutions from Crossing the Stream to Catskill Creek, New York

Throughout his artistic career, Thomas Cole favored successive repetition in his works, focusing on the transformation of elements such as nature, humanity, and the environment. In the Catskill Creek series, Cole avoids an overt narrative seen in his previous works, such as The Voyage of Life, 1842 (The National Gallery of Art) and The Course of Empire, 1833–1836 (New-York Historical Society). Instead, he emphasizes a commitment to time and place and focuses on the theme of “crossing over.”

In Crossing the Stream, 1827, one of his first Catskill Creek paintings, a boy is carrying a fishing rod, traversing a rickety wooden bridge in the Allegheny Mountains, where Cole visited shortly before his emigration to the United States as a boy. The scene conveys a sense of instability in the way the bridge dips into the ravine, flanked by dark twisting forest and uprooted trees. The danger is sensed from the barking dog and the dark clouds overhead. Here, nature’s power is encompassing, foreboding, as it overshadows all who traverses within it.

In Catskill Creek, New York, 1845, which was painted shortly before the artist’s death, a small, foreboding, hint of steam flows out from a visually unknown source amongst the mountains. The steam may reference tanneries that were opening around this time, and hints at the vulnerability of the land to industrial production; a preface to the inevitable destruction that concerned Cole. The soft warm sky contrasts the dense unruly forest, a serene setting without the same tumultuous energy as Crossing the Stream. A light blue afternoon sky transitions to the bright orange of a setting sun amongst the rolling mountaintops tops, while wispy clouds are kissed by the colors of the sunset. A rower makes their landing from the water, meeting two other figures on the edge of the river bed, completing the narrative journey of “crossing over.”

Though “crossing over” is an important theme in this series, Cole’s paintings also touch on vulnerability, seen through the symbols of encroaching industrialism. Cole often subtly integrates products of industrialism among the landscape, such as wisps of steam coming from workshops in the distance and locomotives nestled into the mountain range. This adds a layer of dynamic energy to each work, fusing nature and man’s creations. The tension between chaos and beauty is what differentiates Cole’s landscapes from other artists. Though Cole’s presented nature as a divine force, he also portrayed its vulnerability, and at times, his own vulnerability as well.


Ivana Woodard
Collections Assistant

Left image: Thomas Cole. Crossing the Stream, 1827. Oil on wood panel. Jamee and Marshall Field Collection. Right image: Thomas Cole. Catskill Creek, New York, 1845. Oil on canvas. New-York Historical Society, The Robert L. Stuart Collection, Gift of his widow Mrs. Mary Stuart, S-157.