Cooper, Cole and the Melancholy Sublime

By Luis A. Iglesias (University of Southern Mississippi)

Presented at the Cooper Panel on “Reading for Enchantment: Reading James Fenimore Cooper and his Contemporaries” at the 30ᵗʰ Annual American Literature Association Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, May 23-26, 2019.

Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 31.1 (Whole No. 8, Spring 2020): 47-52.

Copyright © 2019, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

In a letter to his patron Robert Gilmore, the Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole avers that “if the imagination is shackled, and nothing is described but what we see, seldom will anything truly great be produced either in painting or poetry.” 1 As a statement of practice, Cole underscored that his paintings, as meticulous and faithfully detailed his renderings of Nature appear, these descriptive scenes of the American landscape achieve their emotional and aesthetic power by how they force the viewer “to see” beyond what is before us, requiring that the viewer to visually encounter the painting and respond to what is there while coming to grips with what is not rendered on the canvas. Similarly, James Fenimore Cooper’s evocation of nature, often filtered through Leather-stocking’s perspective on the environment, presents a landscape of an American ethos of wonder oftentimes alluding to what is no longer present from the reported vista and scene. For both viewers and readers, to encounter the American scene stages an experiential state of recognition that oscillates between past and present, thought and affect, and aesthetic pleasure and political reality. 2 As noted in his illustrated exploration into the phenomenology of reading, What We See When We Read, Peter Mendelsund argues that “to read is to look through; to look past though also to look myopically, hopefully, toward ... ” (334). 3 I would like to suggest that both James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Cole share in this project, one that through evocative descriptions of landscape the viewer becomes an enraptured reader of what is before them by recognizing what is not.

Reading James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Cole side-by-side is both historically and critically appropriate. Both literary critics and art historians, such as Joy Kasson, Donald Ringe, Barbara Novak, and James Beard — as William Dunlap and William Cullen Bryant did contemporaneously — have drawn parallels between these artists and their approach to their respective mediums. Cooper, himself, appreciated Cole’s artistry directly referencing Cole’s major painting series The Course of Empire (1833-36) in his novel, The Crater (1847), not to mention contacts between the two as well as Cooper’s attempt to commission (though through intermediaries) a painting from Cole. In a letter to Cole’s biographer, Cooper regretted that he did not have the “spare cash” to acquire one of Cole’s paintings when he had the opportunity. 4 Moreover, as Donald Ringe asserts, Cooper not only made reference to Cole’s paintings but also took the pictorial sequence as a narrative structure for his novels. 5 For his part, Cole took direct [48] inspiration from Cooper’s novels on several occasions, portraying scenes from The Last of the Mohicans in a number of paintings, for example.

But, whereas the intersections of Cooper’s and Cole’s works and their relation to each other have largely focused on pictorial connections — as both artists sourced the same materials, i.e., the American landscape — I would like to approach this discussion from the perspective of examining a temporal sensitivity each artist deployed in scenic description to narrativize, expose, and project a sense of time and loss. In drawing upon representations of nature’s sublimity, its majesty and awe, both Cooper and Cole force the reader and viewer to confront the loss that has already happened to the landscape in what I want to call the Melancholy Sublime. Here the sense of awe and, as is often the case, God’s presence in the world, are underscored by an appreciation of what is already gone from the landscape and no longer retrievable.

I note that art historians repeatedly argue that Cole’s landscapes are not direct representations but rather based on on-site sketches, which were later developed into full-scale paintings in his studio, producing a pictorial representation of the site that is a combination of direct experience and artistic imagination. Cole, an artist with a poetic and literary sensibility, preferred this approach to landscape art rather than a prosaic topographical view because it emphasized emotional meaning rather than surface depiction. Similarly, Cooper’s depictions, while often based on his personal experiences distilled through the lens of historical fiction, sought to represent the landscape as it was and should be. The reverse chronology of the Leather-stocking tales is an example.

It is worth recalling that for both Cooper and Cole, as with many writers and artists of the first half of the nineteenth century, in the words of Robert Hughes, Nature became American’s national myth, and the act of painting it (pictorially or literally) is an assertion of national identity (138). 6 And, yet, at the same time, Cooper and Cole, in many ways conflicted transnational figures whose strong identification with the nation was complicated by a strong desire for transatlantic fame, each represented in the American landscape a foreshadowing of “settler colonialism destroying itself” (Finlayson 96). 7 In their most powerful works — Cole’s Kaaterskill Falls (1826), The Oxbow (1836), and of course The Course of Empire (1833-1836); and Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823), The Deerslayer (1841), and The Crater (1847) — each drew attention to humanity’s effects on nature and the cyclical unfolding of time, depicting man’s relationship to nature as a “pioneering study in the Anthropocene” that questions “the entire narrative of settlement and commercialism” (Finlayson 96). One way to read the strategy of the [49] melancholy sublime is as a result of the ecological crisis that arises from the concern over the fate of unchecked national settlement and “course of the American empire” (96).

Thomas Cole, Falls of Kaaterskill, Catskill Mountains, 1826. Dallas Museum of Art.

Cooper mirrors this pictorial strategy in the often-quoted scene from Mount Vision in The Pioneers. In this scene, as Judge Temple [50] recounts his first view of what will become Templeton, Cooper writes a rhapsodic rendering of nature’s untouched sublimity. However, the very beauty that invites both the readers’ and Temple’s enchantment has been mowed down for farmland and commercial establishment, while the abundance of trees and wildlife are exhausted by the ubiquitous wood-choppers’ song that continues to be heard throughout the novel (The Pioneers 235-36). 8 In other words, the sublimity of the scene arises from the loss registered in the contemporary moment. But in the reality of the novel’s present in 1794 or the readers’ present of 1823 (and even today), the sublime beauty of the scene, just like Cole’s Kaaterskill Falls, is made more dramatic by the knowledge that it no longer exists. The sense of loss is both poignant and damning.I would argue that in both Cooper’s and Cole’s renderings of the American landscape, its sublimity is readerly and visually appreciated by it being lost and irretrievable. In Cole’s well-known painting Kaaterskill Falls (1826), a landscape described by Leather-stocking in The Pioneers, it presents the double waterfall against autumnal colors as grand and impressive. Cole pictured the falls at the center of the painting, while shafts of sunlight illuminate a rocky ledge; a single figure (overwhelmed by the landscape) of a Native American stands majestically if diminutively in profile against the cliff behind him with storm clouds in the distance. Kaaterskill Falls, the painting, evokes the sublime beauty of the Hudson Valley, visually arresting and aesthetically moving — yet, its pictorial power emerges from the fact that it is something of a lie. A contemporary viewer of the scene would have seen through the painting as if a melancholy palimpsest of a past already lost. For in the present, a toll-keepers hut sits upon the top ledge of the falls and tourists pay a fee to open a dam gate constructed to regulate the flow in timed displays of the cascade. Cole was aware of this as evidenced by a study for the painting he executed in 1826, currently at the Dallas Museum of Art (see image), in which the hut is present, the upper tree line reveals that it has been significantly cut back, and the landscape partially cleared for the benefit of tourists.

Both Cooper and Cole deployed a pictorial strategy of imaginatively projecting the present from the past toward the future, highlighting not only what cannot be recovered in the present moment but also foreshadowing what is to come as the environment continues to be transformed. As Cooper wrote in another scene in The Pioneers, “the dark covering of the Otsego was left to the undisturbed possession of two eagles, who alighted on the centre of its field, and sat eyeing their undisputed territory. ... But the time had come, when even these kings of the birds were to be dispossessed” (The Pioneers 242-3). There is a collapsing of time here — where the present is already predicated on an inevitable future of loss.

In a similar vein and directly referencing the landscape of the Hudson Valley, annotating an engraving reproduced in a set of original engravings issued under the title “The American Landscape” 1830, William Cullen Bryant wrote of Kaaterskill Falls that the present viewer must lament that “this is not the place to describe the view from the submit; and if it were, I could only do it justice by copying the magnificent description of a popular American novelist [Cooper], written while that submit was yet untrodden” (10). 9 He goes on to note that “It can never more be gazed, [as it was] however, I am not sure that it does not heighten the effect”; for Bryant (as for Cooper and Cole) the scene’s sublimity can only be imagined rather than witnessed, all the more moving because it is no longer there. As an interesting note, the engraving to which Bryant writes presents a different vantage point from that painted by Cole and described by Cooper. While he textually invokes the falls, the engraving shows us a different scene. The loss is doubly reinforced.

While it is tempting to read the early nineteenth century’s attention to pictorial and literary landscape in terms of the sublime and the [51] beautiful, it is sobering to keep in mind that for the average American of the period (and perhaps even today as the assault on public lands continues) the landscape was appreciated mainly as territory, property, and for its raw materials: for land speculators and investors as well as for settlers of the new territories, the landscape was something to be conquered and exploited. It is worth recalling Washington Irving’s humorous but perceptive rendering of Ichabod Crane’s consumeristic view of the Van Tassel farm in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as an early and well-known representation of this mindset.

The consumeristic and reckless exploitation of nature and landscape are a recurring concern to which Cooper’s novels directly respond and depict. Similarly, Cole’s paintings suggestively register a powerful, if more subtle, frustration with the expansive and destructive actions of national settlement. Cole’s celebrated painting, The Oxbow (1836), shows the View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts. The painting depicts a Romantic panorama of the Connecticut River Valley just after a thunderstorm passes. To the East (the right-side of the canvas), is the sweeping vista of the valley, with its neatly plowed fields, marked by wispy smoke issuing from the various chimneys of domestic settlement. To the West (the left-side of the canvas), is the looming chaotic thunderstorm, receding from the cultivated valley below. Or, read differently, the thunderstorm that advances westward, since the voracious domestication of Nature is inevitable. A close inspection of the valley floor reveals the tree stumps and scared landscape that was once like the untamed and abundant forest to the west. Therefore, the painting presents the viewer with a stark set of alternatives: a flat terrain of treeless, plowed, square-cut fields, running back to a deforested horizon; or, an untamed wilderness that looks unkempt and threatening, but reverberates with the potential of dizzying abundance. The flat land, though cultivated and presumably fertile, is bland and artificial. Tucked away in the landscape is the painter at his easel, looking at the viewer as if to say: “this is now and our future.” 10

As Cole explained in his “Essay on American Scenery,” published in American Monthly Magazine 1 (January 1836), looking over the yet uncultivated scene, the mind’s eye may see far into futurity. Yet, “In this age, when a meagre utilitarianism seems ready to absorb every feeling and sentiment, and what is sometimes called improvement in its march makes us fear that the bright and tender flowers of the Imagination shall all be crushed beneath its iron trap, it would be well to cultivate the oasis that yet remains to us.” 11 In this assessment, Cole warns as his paintings [52] express a melancholy grandeur arising from a confirmation of loss already having taken place and that the beauty of the American landscape is quickly (or has already) passed away — stating in what could be mistaken as a line from Cooper’s The Pioneers, “the ravages of the axe are daily increasing — the most noble scenes are made destitute.” 12

In the works of both Thomas Cole and James Fenimore Cooper, the sublime found in the American landscape is frequently a melancholy one, registering the loss of nature’s awe-inspiring majesty in the wake of settlement and progress. As a matter of reading, both Cole and Cooper employ a strategy of projecting through the text — be it textual or pictorial — an appreciation of what is not there in the present versus what was present in the past, heightening both the description’s effect (and affect) and the drama of the sublime encounter. Accounting for this shift in perspective embedded in the reading of the text and painting, as Rita Felski argues, is to do justice to how readers respond to the words [and I will add image] they encounter 13 — one that provides a context for the aesthetic pleasure and social awareness that Cole and Cooper sought to provide as a form of critique and artistic expression.


1 Letter to Robert Gilmore, December 25, 1825: The Life and Works of Thomas Cole, Part 1, ed. Louis Legrand Noble, 3ʳᵈ ed. (New York: Sheldon, Blakeman, & Co, 1856), 93.

2 Rita Felski, The Uses of Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 17.

3 Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2014).

4 Letter to Louis Legrande Noble, January 6, 1849. In The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Franklin Beard (6 vols., Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960-68), 5:396.

5 See Donald A. Ringe, The Pictorial Mode: Space and Time in the Art of Bryant, Irving, and Cooper (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1971).

6 Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (New York: Knopf, 1999).

7 Ciarán Finlayson, “Colony of Errors,” Artforum 57.3 (Nov. 2018) 95-96.

8 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers or the Source of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale (1823; Albany: SUNY Press, 1980).

9 William Cullen Bryant, The American Landscape, No. 1 (New York: E. Bliss, 1830).

10 Holland Cotter, “Thomas Cole, American Moralist,” New York Times March 15, 2018.


12 Ibid.

13 Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2015).