What attracts me to Thomas Cole (February 1, 1801 – February 11, 1848) is that he was the founder of the Hudson River School, a group of American artists who sought to depict the unspoiled majesty of the American landscape around the Hudson River Valley in New York State. I love that part of the state and Cole was the first to explore this territory, taking steamboat trips up the valley starting in the mid-1820s onwards, and his work influenced a whole generation of American artists including Frederic Edwin Church (whose Olana home overlooking the Hudson is a wonder), Albert Bierstadt, and Asher Brown Durand. Hudson Talbott, who swears he did not change his name to fit his subject matter, has created a lovely volume for children (and adults), Picturing America, about the renown Mr. Cole. I asked Talbott to talk about why he chose this fascinating theme for kids.
Thomas Cole is a remarkable artist and the Hudson River School is an important movement but why did you select him as the subject for a children’s book?
I grew up in Kentucky, where every school kid knows who Stephen Foster is.We took field trips to “My Old Kentucky Home”. I felt that the young people of the Hudson Valley and New York state should take that same pride in Thomas Cole, and the contributions he made to American culture. It’s time that all children know what he did that makes him heroic.
The challenge of teaching children about art and artists is making them connect to the subject. How do you feel that you accomplished this?
Every child starts out drawing. Some of them stick with it, like I did. For all those kids who keep their love of making art I wanted to give them a role model.
Cole’s “Empire” has the element of magic realism. It is majestic. How do children relate to such imagery?
They love the visual story-telling aspect of it. The Course of Empire was painted long before we had movies. It was serving a similar purpose: telling a story through a series of images, or to be more precise, telling a cautionary tale on an epic scale. And besides, who doesn’t love to get lost in all that drama?
You conflate Cole’s genre with a sense of environmental sensitivity, is that what you want your young readers to take away?
Yes, among other things. Cole’s work transcends the limits of conventional landscape painting because he’s using it to convey a message beyond the pleasure of a pretty scene. He’s saying “as beautiful as the bucolic landscape may be, we’re in danger of losing it if we do not protect it.” When I speak of him as America’s first great painter, I don’t mean because he painted American landscapes but because his work embodies the unresolved conflict that is at the core of the American soul: we love and identify with America the Beautiful while at the same time decimating it in the course of profiteering. His message is sadly more relevant than ever.
You note that he passed early. I’m curious, since the book is for children did you gloss over his passing?
I didn’t intentionally gloss over his death due to any thoughts about children not being able to deal with it. It happened quite suddenly ,as I understand and caught the nation by surprise. We don’t realize how loved and respected he was at the time. But he started the conversation about preserving the environment and that’s what I want children to take away. He exemplifies how much difference one person can make, no matter how brief his or her life.
How much did you have to learn about Cole, Church and his circle?
I thought I knew a lot already when I decided to do this book. But I was quickly humbled when I discovered how little I knew. And the interesting thing is that more is surfacing about him all the time. His diary was just transcribed and we’re finding what a profoundly deep, often troubled but truly sensitive soul he was. I wish I had another book to research so I could spend more time with him.
As for the others, well, they’re all wonderfully talented but none are as fascinating or as original as the man they were following.
I have three book projects, an animation project based on a book , and a kids’ musical based on another book all in the works and none of which I’m at liberty to talk about right now. But thanks for asking!