Historicism and Nostalgia in Thomas Cole’s Last of the Mohicans
Presented at the Cooper Panel No. 2 (Cooper’s Indians) of the 2008 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 25, May 2008, pp. 22-24.
Copyright © 2008, James Fenimore Cooper Society.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
From 1826 to 1827, Thomas Cole produced four paintings based on James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans. Rather than just illustrating a popular work of fiction, Cole drew from specific moments in Cooper’s narrative to give a sense of historicism to his paintings of the American landscape. In the moments he chose, Cole combined the dramatic setting of the American wilderness with exciting action of the confrontations between Anglo-Americans and American Indians. This paper explores how Cole’s landscape paintings and Cooper’s Leather-Stocking novels relate the American Indian to the American landscape. The Indian and the wilderness provide a historical context for the American landscape and imbue that landscape with a sense of nostalgia.
In 1826, the same year that Last of the Mohicans was first published, Cole painted his first landscape based on the popular narrative, Landscape with Figures: A Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans.” ¹ In the story, the scout Hawkeye infiltrates the camp of the Delaware’s in the attempt to save Cora and Alice Munroe. But Cora is condemned to go with the treacherous Magua back to the Huron camp. In his 1826 painting, Cole paints the final climatic scene. En route with Magua, Cora, finally exclaims to her captor, “Kill me, if though wilt, detestable Huron, I will go no farther!” ² At this point, the Mohican Uncas appears, “leaping frantically, from a fearful height upon the ledge. Magua recoiled a step, and one of his assistants, profiting by the chance, sheathed his own knife in the bosom of the maiden.” ³ Uncas becomes maddened by the murder of Cora, and is then killed by Magua. Hawkeye arrives just as Magua is clinging to a precipice, having attempted his escape by leaping over a chasm and falling short. Standing over the bodies of Uncas and Cora, Hawkeye shoots Magua.
The narrative component of the scene takes up very little of Cole’s composition, but the utter centrality of Hawkeye and the sprawling bodies immediately draws the viewer’s attention to the action. These central figures are bathed in light, while so much of the landscape lies in shadows under a stormy sky. Cora’s gleaming white dress catches the light and draws attention to her prostrate form. Uncas has just fallen; his knees are still bent and raised. Standing over Cora and Uncas with his rifle raised, Hawkeye’s person forms the apex to this pyramidal form of bodies. The viewer’s eye then follows the line of his rifle down to the right where Magua desperately tries to pull himself up onto the rocks across the chasm. In a moment, Hawkeye’s rifle will fire and Magua’s body will fall away into the darkness below. Duncan Hayward charges in from the left, his face and red coat catching the light, while his extended arm points the viewer’s gaze back to the center of the composition.
Cole unites the exciting narrative with sublime visual devices. Ravishment, rescue, murder, and revenge: these are the sublime elements that Cooper’s story presents. But it is the landscape itself that imbues the plot with additional meaning. Only in this terrifying landscape can we, as viewers, really feel the terror and excitement. The thunderstorm and rising smoke in the background, give the painting an overall sense of foreboding. ⁴ Contrasts of light and dark show us the glaring certainty as well as the mysterious unknown qualities of death. A half-decayed tree with its blood red leaves partially encircles the threesome in the center. That tree itself is precariously situated on the edge of a cliff, struggling to grow back to the left towards the safety of more solid ground. Cora’s body, sprawled so close to the cliff’s edge, faces the viewer but could tumble over at any moment to be broken on the rocks below. Blasted trees on the left, one of Cole’s favorite motifs, likewise speak of violence and destruction. The landscape is a wilderness where civilization holds no power. Of the two “civilized” characters pictured, one, Cora, is dead, while the other, Duncan Hayward, is impotent in the face of this savage wilderness.
Cole connects the landscape to the narrative even more by visually associating the figure of the Indian with the landscape. The villain Magua clutches the rocks. The color of his skin blends with the earthy tones of the surrounding rocks. His crouched form seems to grow directly out of the rock. His bent limbs and squat form are repeated in the shape of the tree. And finally the headdress and scant clothing match the bright red leaves of the same tree. Cole’s representation of the primitive savage parallels the virgin landscape. Untamed by European civilization, the Indian and landscape both are unpredictable, wild, and terrifying.
Cole shows us, in the narrative sequence, an exact moment from Cooper’s story. It is the moment of certain doom for Magua as he will join the fates of Cora and Uncas. But while we may know from Cooper’s narrative what the ultimate ending will be, Cole’s climactic version fills us with anticipation and uncertainty. We would like to rush forward, but like Duncan, we will not make it in time. Rocks and chasm separate us from the action, and we are similarly helpless. By visually capturing this precise moment, Cole uses the narrative to create a landscape that will always be uncertain, violent, and frightening.
Indians and the wild landscape are both threatening. But they are also both threatened by the advances of civilization. Hawkeye, taking aim at Magua, represents the fringe of white civilization. He is about to shoot the threatening Indian to make the frontier safer for settlers. And just as the Indian threat is about to be eradicated, smoke rises in the distant background, evidence of land being cleared, transforming the wilderness into arable farmland.
Consider how contemporaries would have viewed the painting. Landscape with Figures, was commissioned by the Stevens family for the Hudson River Steamer, The Albany. ⁵ Viewed by tourists traveling up the Hudson River, this landscape represents the lost American wilderness. Tourists could enjoy the feeling of awe inspired by the sublime narrative and landscape, but still feel assured that they would not encounter such dangers in their own tours of the American landscape.
Cole’s next painting based on this novel shows the scene that happened just a few moments before the death of Magua. In Landscape, Scene from “Last of the Mohicans”: the Death of Cora, ⁶ Cole has gone back a few pages to show the moment before Cora’s death. Magua holds Cora’s head and threatens her with the knife while she pleads that she would rather die than go on with him. When Cole first exhibited the painting at the National Academy of Design, he included the following quotation from Cooper in the catalogue:
“Woman,” [Magua] said, “choose! The wigwam or the knife of Le Subtil!” Cora regarded him not; but dropping on her knees, with rich glow suffusing itself over her features, she raised her eyes and outstretched arms toward heaven, saying in a meek and yet confiding voice — “I am thine! Do with me as thou seest best!” — But Cora neither heard nor heeded [Magua’s] demand. The form of the Huron trembled in every fibre, and he raised his arm on high, but dropped it again, with a wild and bewildered air, like one who doubted. Once more he struggled with himself and lifted his keen weapon again — but a piercing cry was heard from above them, and Uncas appeared, leaping frantically from a fearful height, upon the ledge. ⁷
From the safety of the gallery space at the National Academy of Design in New York City, urbanites could admire the frightening climactic moment. Men and rocks, Indians and wilderness all threaten the viewer from behind the picture frame’s fixed boundary.
In the background, Uncas rushes forward, and in a moment he will jump down from the rocks in an effort to save Cora. The man behind Magua also holds a knife: the knife that will ultimately kill our heroine, while it is Magua’s knife that will slay Uncas. Like the previous painting, Cole chose the moment of action before the fatal blow is given. We know Uncas will fail, and we, the viewers, are powerless to prevent the violent act.
Cole draws interesting compositional parallels between the Indians and the physical landscape. Uncas, running in from the background holds both his arms up over his head. His form mimics that of the blasted tree which he is about to pass, its dead form foreshadowing Uncas’s future. Magua stands in the center with his arms outstretched to hold both Cora’s head and his knife. The threatening knife may strike any moment, just as the dark and ominous clouds overhead threaten more blasts of lightning. The shape of his arms makes him look like the tree at the edge of the cliff, and just as the tree seems to reach out its branches away from the void below, Magua turns his body over lunged legs away from the cliff’s edge. Even the color of the Indians blends with the landscape, their dark limbs catching the light in the same manner as the brown tree branches. The little clothing they wear repeats the red and green colors of the surrounding tree leaves.
Cole’s landscape does more than just stage the scene; it helps compose the feeling of approaching doom. The rocky formations in the background tower over the figures, showing the power of nature. In addition to the picture frame itself, a chasm and cliff separate viewers from the drama. Chiaroscuro highlights the action, drawing attention to Cora’s bright white figure contrasted against the dark Indian warriors. Uncas and Cora both raise their arms, one in supplication to God, the other as part of his war-whooping attack, but like the blasted trees, they too will fall.
The last two paintings, both from 1827, depict the same scene with only slight differences. These two versions, one now in the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut and the second in the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown, New York, are both called Landscape Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans”: Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund. ⁸ Cole backs up in the narrative once again, to show the moment when Cora throws herself at the feet of Tamenund, the old and prophet-like Delaware chief. She begs for mercy, pleading not to be taken by Magua as his wife. Hayward and Hawkeye stand before Tamenund as well, and Magua holds the swooning Alice. ⁹ Both landscapes place the figures in a rocky clearing at the edge of the mountain and both overwhelm the action with their vast proportions. Indeed, the viewer can hardly make out the story’s heroes and heroines, so eclipsed are they by the surrounding landscape.
Native Americans here seem to be connected or rooted in the landscape. In the two versions, the Indians form a ring around the narrative’s principal characters as they stand before Tamenund. The ring of their standing bodies mimics the natural barriers of the landscape itself. They stand paralleling the shape of the cliff in the Hartford version or like so many boulders in the Cooperstown version. The colors of the encircling Indians’ clothes copy the colors of the surrounding foliage and turning autumn leaves. Only the figures of Cora, Alice, and Duncan Heywood, the civilized characters, wear any colors that do not mimic the landscape. Cora and Alice both wear white dresses, and Heywood has on white britches. The vast infinite landscape presses on the figures, silencing Cora’s cries and pleas. Cole adds to the narrative’s feeling of approaching doom by depicting tensely erected rocks behind the figures. In the Hartford version, a dark looming rocky mass and a vertical column of rock topped with a circular boulder tower menacingly over the figures. The tall rocky column’s phallic form helps communicate the sexual tensions of this meeting between the Anglo-American and Indian figures. Magua’s attempt to possess Cora Munroe forcefully as a wife speaks to white fears of the Indians as sexually and physically threatening. In the Cooperstown version, Cole replaces the phallic shaft of rocks with a huge boulder that balances precariously behind the actors threatening to roll onto them. While this change may downplay the narrative’s sexually violent connotations, the boulder’s unsteady position draws attention to the climatic excitement of the narrative itself. Situated not just behind the figures, but hanging over their heads, it could crash down any moment onto the heads of Magua, Alice, and Cora. Cole conflates the threat of Magua with the threat of the landscape. Both excite feelings of dread and uncertainty. Even with clear skies, Cole includes more evidence of nature’s fiery wrathful power in the form of the blasted trees in the foreground of both paintings.
The narrative written by Cooper and painted by Cole is a narrative of nostalgia. I use Susan Stewart’s explanation of nostalgia, which she defines as:
A sadness without an object, a sadness which creates a longing that of necessity is inauthentic because it does not take part in lived experience. Rather, it remains behind and before that experience. Nostalgia, like any form of narrative, is always ideological: the past it seeks has never existed except as narrative, and hence, always absent, that past continually threatens to reproduce itself as a felt lack. ... Nostalgia is the desire for desire. ¹⁰
When we consider the actual subject of the title, The Last of the Mohicans, we are immediately aware of a sense of loss. After the death of Uncas, Chincachgook, Uncas’s father, is the last of the Mohican tribe. The last of a people, almost gone, Cooper gives us the desire for desire. He constructs a past that only existed as the narrative itself and the reader’s feeling of longing. ¹¹
While the narrative and the paintings both place an emphasis on the bifurcation and almost structuralist contrasts of wilderness and civilization or Indian and Anglo-Americans, they also include the intermediary figure of Hawkeye. A white man, but the constant companion of the Mohican Chingachgook, Hawkeye represents the interstices between Indians and the wilderness on one side and Anglo-Americans and civilization on the other side. Cole specifically depicted those moments from the story when the relationship between these groups was most strained, threatened, and violent. He painted the moments when the mediator was most needed.
Just as Hawkeye provides slippage between nature and culture, his character becomes a timeless expression of the advance of American identity. Caught between the wilderness and civilization, he mediates between progress and nostalgia. Like Hawkeye, Cole’s landscapes create a mythic place in American history. By painting landscapes from The Last of the Mohicans, Cole presents to the viewer the desire for the landscape as eternal. Both Cooper and Cole use a kind of framing mechanism. ¹² James Fenimore Cooper uses the landscape to frame and construct his characters and narrative. Thomas Cole uses the narrative to frame the landscape. Both Cooper and Cole equate the Native American with the wilderness of the American landscape. Both use nostalgia to create a sense of historicism and national identity.
1. Now in the Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.
2. James Fenimore Cooper, Last of the Mohicans (1826; Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1992), 380.
4. Ellwood Parry III, “Cooper, Cole, and The Last of the Mohicans,” Papers in Art History from the Pennsylvania State University, vol. 10, Art and the Native American: Perceptions, Reality, and Influences, ed. Mary Louise Krumrine and Susan Clare Scott (2001), 155.
5. Kenneth John Myers, “Art and Commerce in Jacksonian America: The Steamboat Albany Collection,” The Art Bulletin 82.3 (September 2000) 503.
6. Landscape, Scene from “Last of the Mohicans”: the Death of Cora, located in the Rare Books Reading Room of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
7. James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans, as quoted in the National Academy of Design, Catalogue of the Second Annual Exhibition, New York, 1827. Quoted in Parry, 183.
8. Robert Gilmor commissioned the Cooperstown version and Daniel Wadsworth commissioned the Hartford version.
9. James F. Beard notes that these two representations are “almost a miracle of fidelity to the scene Cooper imagined.” Beard, “Cooper and His Artistic Contemporaries,” James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal, ed. Mary E. Cunningham (Cooperstown: New York State Historical Association, 1954), 118.
10. Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 23.
11. Stewart also defines nostalgia as a “social disease.” Stewart, ix.
12. Framing mechanisms, according to Bernard Herman, have three characteristics: they serve as a medium of containment and order; provide a shared sense of definition; are situated within other discourses. See Bernard Herman, “The Bricoleur Revisited,” American Material Culture: The Shape of the Field, ed. Ann Smart Martin and J. Ritchie Garrison (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997).