Considered the father of American landscape painting, Thomas Cole was born in Lancashire, England in 1801 and immigrated to the United States at the age of eighteen. Leaving Philadelphia, where his family resided, for New York in 1825, the young artist captured the immediate attention of the New York art world following his first sketching trip up the Hudson River that summer. In the ensuing years, Cole's remarkable depictions of the American wilderness would launch America's first native art movement, the Hudson River School, a tradition of landscape painting that would dominate the first part of the nineteenth century. The works of these artists encouraged tourists to visit the wilderness, and helped Americans formulate a nationalistic interest in the grandeur and scenic beauty of nature found in their own country's terrain.
Successful early sales of Cole's paintings following that first 1825 expedition, as well as quickly rising prices and demand for his works, enabled the artist to embark on another extended trip to the Catskills the following summer. Cole stayed for the early part of the season in Lake George and spent the remainder in the village of Catskill, where the present work was conceptualized. On his excursions, Cole roamed the wilderness sketching, making notes, and contemplating the natural beauty that he found, later realizing his masterful compositions in oil.
Kaaterskill Clove, formed by the course of the Kaaterskill Creek as it descends through a series of magnificent waterfalls, became one of the most popular subjects for the Hudson River School, and is often considered the birthplace of the movement. A trip to the falls was a pilgrimage nearly every Hudson River School painter was compelled to make. Thomas Cole was the first of these artists to paint Kaaterskill Falls, and would move to the village of Catskill in 1827, maintaining a studio within view of its mountain peaks.
Painted in 1826, View in Kaaterskill Clove is an important work from this early period in Cole's career, and exemplifies both the wonder and drama with which the American wilderness was encountered by the artist as well as by explorers of the time. As stated by Matthew Baigell, "Cole's works are unique in American art because for the first time the viewer appears to be catapulted directly into the American wilderness. Never before had an American artist captured so completely the look and feel of raw nature as well as the apparent total indifference of nature to man's presence or intentions." (Thomas Cole, New York, 1981, p. 11) Indeed, in the present work one may witness both the beauty and sublimity that Cole found in the American landscape. In his composition, the dark tonalities of the shadowed foreground contrast sharply with a backdrop theatrically bathed in hopeful sunlight, illuminating the fiery autumnal foliage and purple clouds that sweep across the mountain peaks. The textured surface of this work, created through careful application of dabs of pigment with the tip of the brush, further recreates the visceral sensory experience of viewing a pleasing landscape, interpreted through the filter of the artist's imagination.
By the 1820s in the United States, aesthetic notions of the Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Picturesque prevailed in artistic theory. These qualities, all thought to be supremely found in nature, were to be ideally applied to the landscape by artists of the time. The tensions between picturesque natural beauty and its counterpart--the anxious unknown implicit in a wild, unconquered terrain--were played out visually in landscapes such as the present work by Cole through such formal compositional devices as sweeping, crossed diagonals and dramatically heightened contrasts between sunlight and shadow. In addition, the details that Cole painted, "scruffy underbrush, broken tree stumps (symbolic of life cycles in nature), jagged mountain profiles, and unkempt mountainsides in great detail," all served to signal to contemporary viewers both the hand of God in nature, as well as the untamed and menacing aspects of the wild. (Thomas Cole, p. 11)
Dr. Baigell outlines the striking compositional strategy seen in the present work, as well as throughout Cole's career of imposing two long, broken diagonal lines forming a large "X" across the picture plane: "This structural device adds emotional wallop, especially in the early works, because it invariably overwhelms the few foreground horizontals...These do not have the visual strength to suggest repose or an easy and casual entry into the picture space...In addition, Cole arbitrarily varied sunlit and shaded areas, thus providing hillsides and steep inclines with extreme topographical variation as well as suggestions of mystery and even terror." (Thomas Cole, p. 13) In View in Kaaterskill Clove, this compositional format is masterfully applied through the formation of the dark craggy slope that drops diagonally from the upper left corner of the picture plane to the lower right, crossing transversely with the misting clouds at the top of the peaks that draw the viewer's eye downward toward the gnarled tree at the embankment of the creek, the focal point of the composition.
As noted by Cole scholar Ellwood C. Parry III, View in Kaaterskill Clove was one of an initial pair of paintings created by Cole for the same patron, Henry Ward. The companion to the present work, titled View on Lake George, is of a similar size and was sold to Ward for the same price as the present work. Another strikingly similar composition titled Stony Gap, Kaaterskill Clove is owned by the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. Dr. Parry posits that the present work is likely the initial version, and the work at the Joslyn Art Museum may have been a replica by the artist. According to Dr. Parry, it was not unheard of for Cole to repeat certain compositions at this point in his career.