Thomas Cole: Reading the Paintings from The Last of the Mohicans
Presented at the 18ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2011.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2011 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 18), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn and Hugh C. McDougall, editors. (pp. 56-63).
Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
In 1826-27, artist Thomas Cole produced four exhibition paintings based on the recent publication of James Fenimore Cooper’s historical novel, The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757 (1826). ¹ As landscape compositions, the images from The Last of the Mohicans occupy a significant place in the painter’s oeuvre and in nineteenth-century European and American art. Representing some of the earliest landscapes derived from American rather than biblical, classical, or European literature, the Mohican pictures revitalized the genre of “landscape composition,” a part of the artistic hierarchy. Unlike a “landscape view,” a “landscape composition” conveyed imaginative ideas and human feelings like history painting or poetry. ² Yet, despite the reception of the paintings from The Last of the Mohicans as “landscape compositions,” most of the art criticism has favored the landscape over the literary, or focused on an individual painting instead of the group. Cole did not plan the Mohican pictures as a narrative series, but he depicted the dramatic climax rather than random events. ³ Arranged narratively, the paintings include: 1. Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans,” Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund, 1827, (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut). 2. Landscape Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans,” 1827, (Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York). 3. Landscape Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans,” The Death of Cora, 1827, (University of Pennsylvania Art Collection, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). 4. Landscape with Figures: A Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans,” 1826, (Death of Magua. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois).
This paper proposes that Cole enlarged the genre of landscape composition by introducing American literary subjects and settings that offer a view of the colonial past as windows to the national present (1820s). Through the lens of Cooper’s popular text, set during the French and Indian Wars, the artist re-imagined a group of frontier encounters, transforming the anxiety of the European Romantics into the turbulence of an American story, both real and fictive. As the painter portrayed the interactions of Anglo-Americans, Native Americans, and an African-American mulatto in the northeast wilderness, he suggested a distinctive land and diverse people engaged in social conflict. In doing so, Cole established his artistic identity as a literary painter in landscape compositions that critiqued the American culture they celebrated. Rather than reading these pictures as topographic views, this paper regards the literary and the landscape as a bold visual narrative that recovered colonial history or legend as a fragile part of imagining a nation. ⁴
Born in England in 1801, Cole immigrated to America in 1818. When he settled in New York City in 1825, the young artist quickly received recognition for wilderness pictures, and soon entered the leading artistic and literary circles. However, just as Cole completed his first Mohican work in 1826, he expressed a desire to produce landscape “compositions,” in a letter to Baltimore art patron Robert Gilmor, Jr. Linking the classical arts of painting and poetry, the artist alluded to the distinction between a real landscape view and an inventive landscape composition: “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.” ⁵ After several written requests to Cole for a scene from a Cooper novel, Gilmor acquired Landscape Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans” (1827). A discerning art patron, Gilmor praised the painter’s efforts at creating a composition: “The composition scene ... is by far the most striking ... you convince me by the group of Indians & the individual representation of them, that you are as much at home in figures as in landscape ... .” ⁶ The subject of landscape composition was part of a discourse on the artistic hierarchy of genres, a classification system established in the seventeenth-century French academy.
The United States Review and Literary Gazette brought a modern and elaborate version of the artistic hierarchy before the public, in a significant piece of criticism on the second exhibition of the National Academy of Design in 1827. History painting preceded the other genres, as it required a thorough study of the human figure drawn from the bible, classical myth, or history. The critic [artist Samuel F. B. Morse] divided History painting into three categories: “Epic, Dramatic, and Historic,” based on the Royal Academy lectures by artist and theorist Henry Fuseli. History painting was followed by Historical or Poetic Portraiture and Landscape, which had three classifications: “Historical Landscape; Landscape and Marine Pieces, compositions; Landscape Views and Common Portraits.” By the examples, “Historical Landscape” and “Landscape compositions” implied literary roots. “Historical Landscape” was represented by the biblical paintings, Saul Prophesying by B. [Benjamin] West and Elijah in the Desert by [Washington] Allston. “Landscape ... compositions” included “many of the Landscapes of Claude and N. [Nicolas] Poussin,” who were preeminent seventeenth-century literary landscape painters. ⁷ The Review called attention to Cole, who had six paintings on view at the Exhibition. The critic [Morse] singled out Landscape Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans,”The Death of Cora and Landscape Composition, St. John in the Wilderness, as “Landscape Compositions” and called them “grand in their character,” as if they both had the import of history painting. ⁸
As landscape compositions, the paintings from The Last of the Mohicans represented a radical change from Cole’s wilderness views. First, unlike the wildlife in Lake with Dead Trees (1825) or the lone American Indian in Falls of the Kaaterskill (1826), each Mohican picture projects complex figural arrangements and multiple temporal frames. These intricate narrative plots convey human conflict absent in other wilderness scenes. Second, the landscape iconography shifts, as Cole displaced the image of nature as a tabula rasa free from literary, historical, or legendary association. ⁹ Altered in form and function, the Mohican wilderness turns into a literary setting, designed to dramatize the characters like a mis-en-scene. For example: The figures perform on an outcropped ledge, mindful of a theatrical stage; strong contrasts of dark and light heighten the drama; and the violent or calm weather patterns confirm the story’s temper. When patron Daniel Wadsworth received his picture, “Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund,” he saw the landscape as words, in which “Every Tree, — every Bush, — every Rock, Shrub, & Weed ... is like a fine printed page where every word is distinctly & clearly seen, & every word tells its meaning.” ¹⁰ By subjecting the landscape to the story’s mood, nature becomes an active and moral voice in the human drama. Third, Cole replaced geographic titles, such as In the Catskills (1827) or Sunny Morning on the Hudson (1827), with literary titles and subtitles that serve as a memory or associational aid to the text.
As a result of the striking narrative, pictorial, and linguistic strategies, the Mohican pictures propose an iconology of colonial culture and conflict that help instantiate but destabilize a clear reading of American identity arising from history or legend. Presenting an image of people and place, Cole recovered the colonial past as a fragile basis for a national mythology of social cohesion. Unlike the wilderness paintings as idealized signs of nationhood, the compositions from The Last of the Mohicans imagined acts of diplomacy, social tension, and violence as a lens to reflect upon art, history, and the ambitions of nationhood. ¹¹
Cole produced the Mohican pictures in a period of civic pride and national feeling, when artists and writers aimed to dispel harsh remarks about the nation’s young culture by envisioning a shared heritage of place, legend, and history. In the Essay on American Scenery (1835) Cole, who was both a painter and poet, urged colleagues to interpret the past, as “American scenes are not destitute of historical or legendary associations.” Ten years earlier, Cole’s friend, the editor and poet William Cullen Bryant stressed the abundance of “national traditions” by bringing up their perceived scarcity in a new nation. In Lectures on Poetry, Bryant claimed that “with respect to the paucity of national traditions, it will be time to complain of it when all those of which we are possessed are exhausted.” ¹² Fashioned by poets and artists, “national traditions” evoked history, continuity, coherency, and stability, in an ambitious age of rapid expansion and dislocation. On the one hand, new networks of transportation and communication joined different regions, as in the spread of print and visual culture or the opening of the Erie Canal. ¹³ On the other hand, the nation confronted disruptions over the loss of wilderness, the growth of cities, geographic expansion, slavery, and mounting tensions between Americans and Native Americans, who were quite visible in the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries. ¹⁴ Spurred by an insatiable quest for land, the country pushed westward, and by manipulating federal law, it uprooted the native people and nearly destroyed their culture.
Scenes of Diplomacy: Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans,” Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund, 1827; Landscape Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans,” 1827
The Native American assumed a critical though ambiguous role in the paintings from The Last of the Mohicans, as the narratives move from native diplomacy to violent captivity to death. Cole painted two pictures of Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund at an Indian Council. Although similar in form and theme, the images vary, such as the shape of the boulders near the Indian assembly or the reversed placement of the key characters. In 1827, Cole wrote to Daniel Wadsworth, who owned the first version: “Since I wrote the foregoing, I have finished the picture for Mr. Gilmor, it is not an exact copy, and I think it is better than yours.” ¹⁵ Both images had public exhibitions: Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans,” Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund, which belonged to Wadsworth, was on view at the National Academy of Design in 1828. That same year, Gilmor submitted Landscape Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans” to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The Exhibition Catalogue identified the literary scene and the landscape:
A composition of real scenes — The mountain is Corroway Peak, and the lake is Winipisioge Lake with Rattlesnake Island, in N. Hampshire — The figures represent a scene from Cooper’s novel, ’The Last of the Mohicans’ — Cora kneeling at the feet of Tamenund [vol. 2] Chapter 12. ¹⁶
Cole set the two scenes of Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, whereas Cooper placed The Last of the Mohicans in the region of Lake George, New York. At the encouragement of Wadsworth, the artist visited the White Mountains in summer 1827, and recorded his impressions from the top of Red Mountain, where “the soul feels unutterably,” in the face of a beautiful and sublime nature. ¹⁷ For the narrative, Cole condensed five or six different episodes into one scene. Following Cooper’s description of native people forming a large and dense belt of human bodies arranged in an open circle (II. XI. 195), he painted the Delaware tribe standing together in a large circle. At the apex of the circle, Cole placed chief Tamenund, who wears long Indian robes and an elaborate headdress. A wise and aged leader, Tamenund (whose name invokes Tamenend, the Delaware chief associated with William Penn) listens to the plea of Cora Munro for the release of her half-sister Alice Munro and their companions. Cora, a mulatto and courageous heroine, kneels before the Indian chief, who will respond to her in a series of speeches rich with metaphor at this decisive moment.
In the two pictures of Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund, Cole confirmed and challenged conventional stereotypes of the Native American as dissimilar to the cultured Euro-American. By positioning enormous boulders in the foreground, the artist distanced the viewer from the Indian Council. The action occurs in the wilderness, so the viewer might associate the American Indian with nature rather than culture. Presided over by chief Tamenund, the proceedings highlight a series of pleas and speeches emphasizing an oral rather than a written tradition, in a native culture valuing language and the spoken word. Yet, Cole exhibited an Indian Council, a fragment of Native American life, custom, law, and colonial history as a crucial part of the national story. Here, the American Indians constitute the dominant circle into which Anglo-Americans enter to hear judgment based on Indian law. As the painter incorporated sound (Cora’s plea) into painting, he indicated the verbal exchange between the protagonists. The tense encounters take place on a beautiful sun-lit day, creating an aura of anticipation. To draw attention to the oral proceedings, Cole inscribed on the back of Daniel Wadsworth’s picture: “Scene from the Last of the Mohicans. 2 Vol., Chap. 12. T. Cole 1827.” ¹⁸
By showcasing Tamenund and the Indian assembly, Cole questioned the image of the Native American as wild, uncivilized, or untutored. Known in the literary criticism as the “judgment of Tamenund” or a “fine diplomatic talk,” the Indian Council conjured Native American diplomacy, oratorical skill, and freedom to assemble. ¹⁹ For the epigram to the chapter, Cooper quoted Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer to infer that Tamenund’s leadership and rhetoric were like Achilles: The assembly seated, rising o-er the rest / Achilles thus the king of men address’d (II. XII. 196). Moreover, the Moravian minister to the Delaware Indians, John Heckewelder, whose writings reportedly informed The Last of the Mohicans, devoted a chapter to “Oratory” and one to “Metaphorical Expressions” in An Account of the History, Manners, Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States. ²⁰ Further, Thomas Jefferson wrote of Indian “eminence in oratory,” and cited the famous speech of Native American chief Logan as comparable to Demosthenes and Cicero. ²¹
Cole’s images of Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund at the Indian assembly also evoked the native people’s independent and non-authoritarian system of government. Rev. Heckewelder, who had lived with the Delawares and knew their language and customs, claimed that “in the management of their national affairs, the Indians display as much skill and dexterity, perhaps, as any people upon earth.” Historian Colin Calloway, a contemporary voice for the profound impact of Native American culture upon Euro-American life, points to William Penn saying that Indian chiefs “’move by the Breadth of their People,’” in a government by consensus. ²² Calloway brings up the debate over the American Indian influence on democracy, as he unearths the writings of many colonists, who admired Native American freedom, community values, and government based on an authority derived from the people. In visualizing the Indian Council, Cole rejected conventional conceptions of the native people, and, instead, he presented to his elite art audience alternative ways of thinking about the American Indian, as a people who had an impact on diplomacy and democratic ideals. ²³
Cole’s pictorial adaptation of Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund was in accord with other images by American artists, such as Benjamin West or Samuel F. B. Morse, who pictured the American Indian as part of the colonial or national imagination. Yet, Cole’s two paintings differed remarkably from their work, depicting the American Indian as passive observer on the political and social fringe. Working in London, West related American art to colonial identity when he painted the Death of General Wolfe (1770) on the Plains of Abraham near Quebec during the French and Indian Wars. Derived from an actual British victory over the French in 1759, West presented the military ensemble gathered around the dying General. Eschewing orthodox history painting, the artist introduced modern costumes and a non-historical image of a “noble savage,” a thoughtful though scantily clad American Indian. Scholar Karl Kroeber explains the relationship between dress and power: The American Indian is “outside their [military] hierarchy though within their grouping, just as his nakedness, sensory evidence of a common humanity concealed by the Europeans, sets off their elaborate dress.” ²⁴ While the American Indian is integral to colonial identity and inside the group, he is a passive observer outside the power structure.
Similar to West, Samuel Morse represented an American Indian in the painting, The House of Representatives (1822), showing Congress at recess. In the visitor’s gallery overlooking the legislature, Pawnee chief Petalasharo is inside the chamber but separate from the process of law. As a prominent member of an official Indian delegation, Petalasharo was in Washington, D.C. at the time to meet President Monroe and Secretary of War John Calhoun. In the gallery near Petalasharo, though in a separate bay, Morse depicted professor Benjamin Silliman and his own father Jedidiah Morse, a geographer, Calvinist minister, and missionary, who believed in Indian improvement. After visiting the tribes in New York, Jedidiah Morse submitted a long report in 1821, defending support for native peoples, which Congress neglected. By including his father, the artist alluded to the declension of republican government and the enlightenment principles of noblesse oblige. ²⁵
In Cora Keeling at the Feet of Tamenund, Cole inverted West’s and Morse’s themes. The Anglo-American artist rejected the stereotype of the American Indian as passive observer or noble savage on the political periphery. Painted fifty years after the American Revolution, the picture of an open, ordered, and informal Indian assembly, perhaps, reminded the public of the native contribution to democratic ideas. Colin Calloway explains how the lack of a written record did not necessarily preclude the flow of democratic ideas from the American Indians to the Euro-Americans: “To say that American democracy emerged as a synthesis of European and Indian political traditions may be an overstatement; but to deny it may be placing too much weight on the written record: ideas and customs tend to seep subtly from one group to another ... in keeping with the flow of Indian ways into Euro-American societies.” ²⁶ While Calloway is interested in culture to c. 1800, historian Stephen Conn provides a link to the national period. In History’s Shadow, Conn demonstrates how “pervasive Indians were in the intellectual life of nineteenth-century America,” yet how difficult it was to place the native people in American history. ²⁷ By selecting the Indian Council as a major theme, Cole aroused an historical consciousness about the important place of the American Indian in the national culture, just as the country was physically and psychologically removing the native people from territory, memory, and history, legalized by the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
A Violent Captivity: Landscape Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans,” The Death of Cora, 1827
Cole probably placed Landscape Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans,” The Death of Cora and Landscape with Figures: A Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans, the death of Magua, in the area of Lake George, the site of Cooper’s novel. The artist traveled to the region in 1826, visiting Glen Falls, Fort Edward, and Fort William Henry, all of which became popular tourist sites after the commercial success of The Last of the Mohicans. ²⁸ For the Death of Cora, the artist portrayed several episodes on various picture planes to produce a visually moving captivity narrative of gender and sexual violence. In the story, Tamenund released Cora to Magua, who retained his captive under tribal law. ²⁹ As a female character, Cora moves from hope and strength at the Indian Council to near helplessness, dependence, and despair. In the lower center of the canvas, Magua is ready to scalp the young heroine. With outstretched arm and knife in hand, he hesitates, but lurking below, another Huron brave will wield the fatal blow. On her knees, Cora prays to God while high on a precipice, the noble Uncas jumps to save her, but he is too far away and too indistinct so we read his failed effort. Cole heightened the captivity by confining the heroine to a dark and narrow space. Squeezed from behind by boulders, rocks, and broken tree limbs, Cora faces a massive rock wall at the cliff’s edge on a dark and stormy day. When the picture was on view at the National Academy of Design (1827), the Exhibition Catalogue included Magua’s famous lines, offering Cora the option of life with him or death. The passage reinforced Cora’s Christian faith and fateful choice:
“Woman,” he said, “choose! the wigwam or the knife of Le Subtil!” Cora regarded him not; but dropping on her knees, with a rich glow suffusing itself over her features, she raised her eyes and stretched her 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 his demand. The form of the Huron trembled in every fiber, 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 the keen weapon again-but a piercing cry was heard above them, and Uncas appeared, leaping franticly [sic] from a fearful height, upon the ledge. Last of the Mohicans, Vol. II, p. 266. ³⁰
The Death of Cora recalls history paintings of sex, violence, and captivity, such as Titian’s Rape of Europa (1559-1562), or Nicolas Poussin’s The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1634-35), or Jacques Louis David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), or the Death of Jane McCrea (1804) by American artist John Vanderlyn, or later Cole’s attempted rape scene in the Destruction from the Course of Empire series (1836). Captivity narratives served various purposes. At the end of the revolutionary eighteenth century, captivity images of cages and prisons served to dramatize liberty by showing constraint. ³¹ American captivity narratives functioned as a form of interaction crossing gender and cultural boundaries, and they varied in the alternatives men and women sought. ³² In the Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824), purportedly a real life story, the colonial captive Mary Jemison chose to remain with the Seneca Indians rather than return to her own society. ³³ On the other hand, the fictive Cora, who finds Magua’s offer untenable, relinquished herself up to God and death. Nineteenth-century Americans could appropriate a captivity narrative to promote their own ambitious program of Manifest Destiny. Pictures of American Indians scalping white women warranted, in the mind of some people, policies of Indian removal. Frontier violence could be real or imagined, in the colonial or national period, but “savage” brutality threatened the safety of women, civilization, and national progress. ³⁴
The Death of Cora complicated a clear reading of American identity by suggesting Cora’s significant but unstable role as an African-American mulatto. Bound by gender and class, Cora and Alice share the same father Lieutenant Colonel Munro. But, Cora was born to a West Indies mother “only remotely descended from black slaves.” ³⁵ While she belonged to an Anglo-American culture, Cora also identified with her black heritage, and she told Tamenund: the curse of my ancestors has fallen heavily on their child (II. XII. 214). Cole placed Cora in the near foreground, where we see her pale complexion, long black hair, slim figure, and white dress, like the dress of her half-sister Alice. At least one Cooper critic thought the author might have changed the tragic ending to an assimilated (tri-racial) match between Cora and Uncas, “as this sort of arrangement is coming into fashion, in real life, as in fiction.” ³⁶ In The Invisible Line, law professor Daniel Sharfstein argues that “people of African ancestry have crossed the color line and faded into the world around them,” throughout American history. At the same time, mixed families “did not escape the nation’s collective belief in a line separating black from white.” ³⁷ Sharfstein opens up the possibilities of considering the fluid yet tight racial boundaries, and the unstable nature of a fixed and unchanging identity.
Life and Death: Landscape with Figures: A Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans,” 1826
Cole chose the climax of Cooper’s story for Landscape with Figures: A Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans,” known here as the Death of Magua. As the artist drew upon multiple incidents in the story, he arranged the figures in a visual narrative reading from left to right, like a page in a book. The artist depicted Major Duncan Heyward near a life-sustaining waterfall, as he rushes forward to witness the dead bodies of Cora and Uncas lying prostrate on the ledge in the center of the painting. Dressed in buckskin and described by D. H. Lawrence as “a saint with a gun,” Hawkeye or Leatherstocking aims his rifle at Magua, cast in shadow on the right. ³⁸ Magua hangs from a tree branch in a moment between life and death. Inspired by Lake George scenery, Cole pictured the waterfall and distant light as a sign of hope and renewal, while he composed the landscape around the death scene with treacherous cliffs, brooding clouds, and strong contrasts or dark and light intensifying the emotional drama. Shortly after Cole completed the Death of Magua in 1826, it was installed in the main cabin of the new commercial Steamboat Albany. ³⁹
In the Death of Magua, the deaths of Uncas and Magua presaged the erosion of American Indian culture, as the country pressed westward in the nineteenth century. Many scholars attest that the portrayal of the Native American in art and literature of the 1820s, increasingly, represented the past. The Native American never vanishes from American life, but decimated by war, disease, and broken treaties, many eastern tribes relocated and many native people died. Cole recorded in paint and prose the image of the American Indian as an emblem of history. From his travels to the White Mountains, he produced the painting Chocorua’s Curse, known through an engraving by George W. Hatch. In prose, he penned “The Death of Chocorua,” an interpretation of the legend of the tribal chief, who cursed the land before he died on Mt. Chocorua, shot by the folly of white men. Cole observed the traces in the landscape where:
the proud [?] Indian has roamed ... where he has died in defense of his inheritance and where he has glutted his revenge in the blood of the white man. (Note: I added the emphases here and in the following paragraph). ⁴⁰
Perhaps, Cole recalled not only the fate of Chocorua but the language from the famous Indian speech by Logan: “’I have fully glutted my revenge ... . Who is there to mourn for Logan? — Not one.’” ⁴¹ For Logan, glutted meant revenge against Virginia, because his murdered family in 1774, a symbol of all American Indians, could not mourn him. For Cole, the Native American who “died in defense of his inheritance and glutted his revenge“ implied a tension between a noble history and savagery. Cooper had Magua use the word gluttony in terms of Western greed: His gluttony makes him sick (II. XII. 207). From afar, Cooper and Cole could mourn the passage of the American Indian, though the deaths of the protagonists upheld the myth and the reality of civilization advancing across a shifting frontier at the expense of native culture.
The paintings from The Last of the Mohicans occupy a pivotal position within Cole’s oeuvre and in nineteenth-century American art, as they comprise some of the earliest landscapes based on a national literature. As Cole transformed Cooper’s text, the artist dramatically altered the form and theme of landscape painting to produce a group of major literary compositions. Cole portrayed the wilderness as a literary setting as well as a geographic site, and he configured small but emblematic literary subjects into dynamic narrative scenes. As the painter envisioned the interconnections between the Euro-American, Native American, and an African-American mulatto in the rugged wilderness, he suggested a distinctive land and diverse people engaged in diplomatic relations, social tension, conflict, and violence. Rather than composing a landscape view, the artist constructed the Mohican images to read as a visual narrative on American art, history, and national ambition. In the paintings from The Last of the Mohicans, Cole expressed his artistic identity as a literary painter in landscape compositions that recovered a colonial history or legend as a fragile part of imagining a nation.
This paper was based on my Ph. D dissertation, “The Literary Paintings of Thomas Cole: Image and Text,” University of Illinois, Chicago, 2009. I wish to acknowledge the institutions that invited me to present a paper: University of Illinois, Chicago; Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago; the Newberry Library, Chicago; and the James Fenimore Cooper Seminar at The State University of New York College at Oneonta, Oneonta, New York. I would also like to thank my colleagues for their comments: Tamsen Anderson, Robin Goldsmith, Wendy Greenhouse, Roger Hecht, Barbara Muller, Mark Pohlad, David M. Sokol, and the editors of The Cooper Seminar, Hugh C. McDougall and Steven Harthorn.
[editor’s note: figures added after publication]
1. References to The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757 are found in James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757; in Two Volumes (Philadelphia: H.C. Carey & Lea, 1826).
2. Alan Wallach discusses Cole’s knowledge of art theory and his desire to paint “a higher style of landscape.” See: Alan Wallach “Thomas Cole: Landscape and the Course of American Empire” in William H. Truettner and Alan Wallach, eds., Thomas Cole: Landscape into History (New Haven: Yale University Press and the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C., 1994), 79.
3. Cole neither painted the Mohican pictures in narrative order nor exhibited them at the same venue. They were neither commissioned by the same patron, and two of the images depict the same scene. See: Roberta Gray Katz, “Thomas Cole: Paintings from The Last of the Mohicans,” (M.A. thesis, University of Illinois, Chicago, 1999), 4-5. Also, see the important essay by Ellwood C. Parry, III., who examines the history of the Mohican paintings, and notes the possibility of a fifth Mohican work. Parry, “Cooper, Cole, and The Last of the Mohicans” in Mary Louise Krumrine and Susan Scott, eds. Art and the Native American: Perception, Reality, and Influence, Volume X, Papers in Art History from the Pennsylvania State University (University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 2001), 146-195. Also, see Victor Dimond, “’Eloquent Representatives’: A Study of the Native Figure in the Early Landscapes of Thomas Cole, 1825-1830” (Ph. D dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1998). Dimond focuses on the image of the Native American as an expression of patronage.
4. My study draws on the scholarship of art historians Alan Wallach, Sarah Burns, and Angela Miller, for example, who find a dark element in Cole’s work. See: Alan Wallach, “Thomas Cole: Landscape and the Course of American Empire,” 22-111. Sarah Burns, Painting the Dark Side: Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press,), 1-43. Angela Miller, The Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representations and American Cultural Politics, 1825-1875 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).
5. Cole to Gilmor, 25 December 1826, quoted in Howard S. Merritt, ed., “Appendix I: Correspondence between Thomas Cole and Robert Gilmor, Jr.,” in The Baltimore Museum of Art Annual II: Studies of Thomas Cole, An American Romanticist (Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1967), 47.
6. Gilmor to Cole, 13 December 1827, quoted in Merritt, ed., “Appendix I: Correspondence between Thomas Cole and Robert Gilmor, Jr.,” 56. In a note to this letter, Merritt states that Gilmor was referring to his Mohican work: “From the description that follows, this must be Scene from “Last of the Mohicans.” See: Merritt, “Reference Notes: Letter 9, note 2,” 128.
7. [Samuel F. B. Morse], “The Exhibition of the National Academy of Design, 1827,” The United States Review and Literary Gazette, vol. 2, no. 4 (July 1827): 244-45. On Morse as the author of the essay, see: David B. Dearinger, “Annual Exhibitions and the Birth of American Art Criticism to1865,” in David. B. Dearinger, ed., Rave Reviews: American Art and Its Critics, 1826-1925 (New York: National Academy of Design, 2000), 59.
8. [Samuel F. B. Morse] “The Exhibition of the National Academy of Design, 1827,” 249-250.
9. Kenneth J. Myers, “On the Cultural Construction of Landscape Experience: Contact to 1830” in David C. Miller, ed., American Iconology: New Approaches to Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 58-79. In this interesting essay, Myers argues that Cole deliberately erased signs of culture in the landscape for ideological purposes.
10. Daniel Wadsworth to Thomas Cole, Hartford, 21 December 1827, quoted in J. Bard McNulty, ed., The Correspondence of Thomas Cole and Daniel Wadsworth: Letters in the Watkinson Library, Trinity College, Hartford (Hartford: The Connecticut Historical Society, 1983), 27.
11. On national identity, see: Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973). Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, 1983. Reprint, 1995). Anthony D. Smith, “The Origins of Nations,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 12, no. 3 (July 1989): 340-367. John L. Brooke, “Cultures of Nationalism, Movements of Reform, and the Composite Federal Polity,” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 29, no. 1 (September 2009): 1-33.
12. Thomas Cole, Essay on American Scenery, 1835, quoted in John McCoubrey, ed. American Art, 1760-1960: Sources and Documents, 108. The E ssay on American Scenery was published in The American Monthly Magazine, New Series I (January 1836): 1-12. William Cullen Bryant, Lectures on Poetry in Parke Godwin, ed., Prose Writings of William Cullen Bryant. Vol. 1: Essays, Tales, and Orations (New York: Appleton, 1889), Lecture 3, p. 33.
13. Richard R. John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995). Richard R. John, Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Trish Loughran, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770-1870 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
14. Stephen Conn, History’s Shadow: Native Americans and Historical Consciousness in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 2006), 2.
15. Thomas Cole to Daniel Wadsworth. New York, 26 November 1827, quoted in McNulty, ed., The Correspondence of Thomas Cole and Daniel Wadsworth, 20-21. Cole did not specify how he varied the compositions or why he preferred the Gilmor picture.
16. Quoted in Parry, “Cooper, Cole and The Last of the Mohicans,” 186.
17. Thomas Cole to Daniel Wadsworth. Center Harbour, New Hampshire, 4 August 1827, quoted in McNulty, ed., The Correspondence of Thomas Cole and Daniel Wadsworth, 12.
18. Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, Amy Ellis, Maureen Miesmer, “Catalogue” in Kornhauser, Hudson River School: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 76.
19. “Art, XXII. — The Last of the Mohicans; a Narrative of 1757. By the author of ‘ The Pioneers,’ ” New York Review and Atheneum Magazine, vol. 2, no. 3 (March 1826): 292. [W. H. Gardiner] “Cooper’s Novels. Art. IX. 1. — ’The Pioneers or the Sources of the Susquehanna, a Descriptive Tale’ ...,” 2. ‘ The Last of the Mohicans; a Narrative of 1757’ ...,” North American Review, vol. 23, no. 52 (July 1826): 186.
20. Rev. John Heckewelder, An Account of the History, Manners, and Customs of The Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States (1818. Philadelphia: Abraham Small, 1819. Reissue. Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1876. Facsimile Reprint. Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Books, 1990), Chapter 11, 132-36 and Chapter 12, 137-40.
21 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787. New York: Library Classics of the United States, 1984), 188.
22 Heckewelder, An Account of the History, Manners, and Customs of The Indian Nations... , 150. Quoted in Colin Calloway, New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University, 1997. 1998), 190.
23 On Cole and elite patronage, see: Alan Wallach, “Thomas Cole and the Aristocracy,” Arts Magazine, 56 (November 1981): 94-106.
24 Karl Kroeber, “Romantic Historicism: The Temporal Sublime” in Kroeber and William Walling, eds., Images of Romanticism: Verbal and Visual Affinities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 151.
25 Paul J. Staiti, Samuel F. B. Morse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 84-101.
26 Calloway, New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America, 189.
27 Stephen Conn, History’s Shadow: Native Americans and the Historical Consciousness in the Nineteenth Century, 1-22. Also see: Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). Deloria shows how Americans identified themselves by playing Indian.
28 Parry, “Cooper, Cole, and The Last of the Mohicans,” 151.
29 John McWilliams, The Last of the Mohicans: Civil Savagery and Savage Civility (New York: Twayne, 1993), 76.
30The Exhibition of the National Academy of Design. 1827. The Second. (New York: D. Fanshaw, 1827), 3-4.
31 Lorenz Eitner, “Cages, Prisons, and Captives in Eighteenth-Century Art” in Karl Kroeber and William Walling, eds., Images of Romanticism: Verbal and Visual Affinities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 13-38.
32 June Namias, White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 1-22. Also see: Roy Harvey Pearce, “The Significance of the Captivity Narrative,” American Literature, vol. 19, no. 1. (March 1947): 1-20.
33 James E. Seaver, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison Who was taken by the Indians in the year 1775, when only about twelve years of age, and has continued to reside amongst them to the present time. (1824. Garland Library. Vol. 41, New York: Garland, 1977). The story can be found in The Garland Library of Narratives of North American Indian Captives, selected and arranged by Wilcomb E. Washburn (New York: Garland, 1976-1983), The Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois.
34 Francis Pohl examines the changing relationships between Americans and the American Indians in visual art. By the 1840s, captivity scenes often showed the victory of western civilization over Indian culture. Pohl, “Old World, New World: The Encounter of Cultures on the American Frontier” in Stephen F. Eisenman, Nineteenth-Century Art: A Critical Heritage (London: Thames and Hudson), 1988), 144-162.
35 Nina Baym, “How Men and Women Wrote Indian Stories” in H. Daniel Peck, ed., New Essays on The Last of the Mohicans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 75. D. H. Lawrence wrote that Cora descended from “some mysterious union between the British officer and a Creole woman in the West Indies.” Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Thomas Seltzer, 1923), 48. Werner Sollors points out that Cora is, perhaps, the first “tragic octoroon” in literature. Sollors, Neither Black not White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 239.
36“The Last of the Mohicans; a Narrative of 1757,” United States Literary Gazette, vol. 4, no. 3 (Boston: May 1, 1826): 90.
37 Daniel J. Sharfstein, The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011), 3. Also see: Judith Berzon, Neither Black Nor White: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1978).
38 Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, 72.
39 Kenneth J. Myers, “Art and Commerce in Jacksonian America: The Steamboat Albany Collection,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 82, no.3 (September 2000): 503-528.
40 Thomas Cole, “The Death of Chocorua,” Thomas Cole Papers. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C. Roll No. ALC3.
41 Quoted in Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 189.