Art History Forum 2019

Thomas Cole: The Pre and Post-Lapsarian Depictions of Religion and Environment

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole, also known as The Founder of the Hudson River School, was a famous American painter in the 19th century. He favored artistic themes of growth and decay and the cycles of civilization in his works. He specialized in the styles of Romanticism and The Sublime Art. In 1828, Thomas Cole completed Expulsion from the Garden of Eden which was a 39 x 54 inch, oil painting.

While the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden appears to be a simple biblical scene representing the fall of man, it is in fact Thomas Cole expressing his belief that the environment is being destroyed by the progression of humanity. He uses religious symbolisms of Adam and Eve and the dichotomy of two worlds as a vehicle for his ideas.

Thomas Cole arranged the landscape to read clearly from right to left, from start to finish, or east to west. He chose this arrangement to show his skepticism of westward expansion in the 19th century. On the right side, the lush green meadow and bright colors are dominant in the composition. This pre-lapsarian world references a time before the fall of man from innocence. On the left, the dark colors and shattered tree make up parts of the post-lapsarian world. Which refers to a period of time that occurs after the fall of man. The unspoiled world is centered around ideas of purity, innocence, and fertility. As the chaotic side is broken down into concepts of pollution, violence, and barrenness.

Thomas Cole maintained hope for a collaborative existence between the human and natural worlds, rather than humanity imposing a tyrannical or dominating force over nature. At the same time, Cole understood that a harmonious relationship is not so easily achieved.

Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), Portrait of Thomas Cole, 1838

In his early years, Thomas Cole developed a strong aversion to major technological advancements. In 1801 he was born in Bolton-le-Moors, a small Lancashire town in England. This time coincided with the first phase of the Industrial Revolution that followed the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century (1803-1815) (1). While a majority of the middle class prospered, Cole’s whole family suffered; due to his father’s severe and repetitive failures as a businessman. Thomas Cole’s first-hand experience of the less prosperous side of the Industrial Revolution led him to develop a powerful antipathy towards these kinds of movements. Art Historian, Alan Wallach states that Thomas Cole had a deep understanding of, “the pressures, upheavals, and dislocations imposed upon traditional communities” (2). As a result of the Industrial Revolution in England, Cole and his family were forced to become migrants to the United States.

Upon his arrival to the United States, Cole was enchanted by the vibrant American scenery; an appreciation that later influenced his religious beliefs. He was struck by the beauty of the mountains, the skies, and the forests, describing what he saw as, “the most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive, characteristic of American scenery is its wildness.” (3)

Though Thomas Cole’s religious origins were in the Episcopal church. He found inspiration for his artwork through his faith and the awe in the environment, asserting the idea in his Essay on American Scenery that, “the wilderness is yet a fitting place to speak of God.”[iii] The appreciation he had for nature evolved from; admiration for the beauty found in the natural world to another religious view. His belief in Natural religion was understood in the 19th century as an argument that the existence of God is based on a set of observed natural facts.” (4) A duality of faith in the Christian religion and Natural Religion had a profound influence on the philosophies that structured Thomas Cole’s artwork. A combination of his religious beliefs is shown in Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Three years before the painting, Thomas Cole completed his travels around the New York and New England regions (5). He studied the different landscapes while creating sketches and paintings to advance his artistic abilities. Cole was not a supporter of America’s quest for westward expansion; as he believed movements that searched to expand human societies generally destroyed nature’s beauty in the processes. In his Essay on American Scenery, published in 1836, Thomas Cole describes movements like Westward Expansion and the Industrial Revolution as, “ravages of the axe” (6). The ideas portrayed in his Essay will be revisited in later analysis.

In his extensive travels, Thomas Cole witnessed technological onslaughts that were occurring in the United States. He ventured up the banks of the Hudson River and witnessed the completion of the extension of the Erie Canal. The first canal in the United States to connect western waterways to the Atlantic Ocean. The following Autumn, Cole took a steamship up the new canal on the Hudson River, to the Catskill Mountains of New York State. Although he detested the movement that created the Erie Canal he still gave in to the advancements that humanity was making. At the expense of nature, humanity had once again created a technological device to grow; further advancing Westward Expansion with the invention of the steamship. The figures of Adam and Eve in Cole’s painting, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden represent humanity at the start of its progression in the natural world.

The first religious allegory is depicted through Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden. In the book of Genesis, God created the first man and woman in existence and commanded them, not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s orders by eating the fruit and were then banished from the Garden of Eden for eternity. To the left of the gateway, Adam and Eve are pictured walking away from Eden, minimized within the composition.

Their posture defeated and disgraced by the virtue of their actions. Thomas Cole understands that with any advancement there is some form of cost that accompanies it, just as he noticed with the extension of the Erie Canal. From his Essay, he states, “the knowledge of the principles on which nature works, can be applied, and our dwelling-places made fitting for refined and intellectual beings” (7). As Adam and Eve forge ahead to the outer world, they take with them knowledge of the good and the evil, at the cost of their innocence and relationship with God. Thomas Cole also cautions within his allegory that if man and nature’s relationship is not soon adjusted, the world will become a desolate place.

The landscape of the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden is split between two contrasting worlds. Each positive idea expressed in the pre-lapsarian world is met with an opposing force from the Garden of Eden’s antithesis. The concepts are revealed through the contrasts between; purity and pollution, innocence and violence, and fertile and barren.

The mountains that stand throughout the background on the right side of the canvas symbolize purity. The snow-covered mountains farthest back in the composition, are a perfect representation of the wholesome structures of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Cole describes the mountains as, “a union of the picturesque, the sublime, and the magnificent; there the bare peaks of granite, broken and desolate, cradle the clouds” (8). In the painting, the peaks of the mountains reach up and blend into the swell of the clouds in the sky before they meet the forest floor.

The second string of mountains, in front of the White Mountains, mirror New York’s Catskill Mountain range. In his essay, Cole describes the Catskill mountains as “not broken into abrupt angles like the most picturesque mountains of Italy, they have varied, undulating, and exceedingly beautiful outlines” (9). They are flanked by other, distant, peaks of a more earthen, flat, bunch of mountains with varied forms and shapes to them. There is a unique difference between the flatter plane at the top of their peaks and a more rounded top in their structures. The depictions of two effervescent and pure mountain ranges contrast with the erupting volcano in the outer realm.

The pollution created by the erupting volcano conflicts with the purity in the mountains. Thick, black ash parts to reveal a volcano shooting lava into the sky. The dark values used in this side of the painting create an ominous feeling. The brush strokes are angry and harsh on the canvas. The sky casts darkness into the landscape, no natural light is present. Even the polluted air starts to permeate the sky in the Garden of Eden as a symbolic spread of the destruction of nature. Slowly, the influences of the Industrial Revolution and Westward Expansion start to proliferate over America’s land. Soon, the landscape will no longer be pure with wilderness but colonized and built up.

Innocence is symbolized by two swans floating in a lake in the foreground on the right side. Swans in Christianity represent purity and innocence (10). Their appearance here mirrors the purity and innocence in their surroundings. Light reflects off the lake, into the sky, and around the swans. Cole states, “whatever expression the sky takes, the features of the landscape are affected in unison” (11). Pure light seeps into the environment while enhancing the natural beauty of Eden. Cole’s historical origins in the Christian religion established his association of Light to the idea of good and the holy God.

In the lower, left side of the landscape, a dynamic scene plays out between a stag, a wolf. The symbolic meaning of the stag is related to the sanctity of forests, independence, and healthy pride. It is the king of the forest, the protector of all other creatures. Here, the stag represents innocence found in the natural world that is being ravaged by the wolf.

Dating back to early Christian readings (7), wolves symbolized a source of evil or as a hostile wilderness that was equated with the devil’s own servants (12). This concept ties back to early Christian shepherds who had to protect their flocks of sheep from ravenous wolves. However, in the religious allegory Thomas Cole portrays, the wolf symbolizes violence.

As a result of a strong religious upbringing and extensive travels through England and Italy; Cole familiarized himself with the Patron Saint, Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis had defended a lone wolf against the townsfolk of Italy after it had attacked and consumed some of the local livestock. Francis encouraged the people to show mercy and to instead feed the hungry wolf so that all might live more harmoniously, and they did. The wolf and stag are a metaphor for humanity’s violence toward the natural world in the name of progression.

The abundance of lush forestry is symbolic of fertility. Green umbrageous masses of the branches and trunks were thrust upwards to the sky. The small space of forest within the painting has a variety of trees in it. All are full of life, green, and vivacious. The tallest trees are palm trees that extend vertically on the right of the landscape, they reach towards the heavens in search of more light. The trees to the left in the Garden of Eden are more horizontal, they stand tall with their branches pointing like arms to the expelled Adam and Eve. Not only is there an abundance of variations of trees within the scene but also a strong representation of flowers and other life. Flowers are in full bloom, moss grows and winds its way up the cave.

Infertility is seen in the twisted, decrepit trees that scatter the dark half of land. Vegetation is scarce throughout the dark valley. Grass, short shrubs, and two palm trees make up almost all of the greenery that the viewer can see. There is not a whole forest in the post-lapsarian world, only a couple of mutilated trees. The trees at the bottom left corner have sharp and twisted branches. They contort in unnatural ways as if they are in agony. The tree closest to the bottom of the canvas is ripped in half, the top portion is gone, leaving a sharp mass of stump in its wake.

As a developing landscape artist in the 19th century, Thomas Cole confronted and engaged in new metaphors that would depict nature as a more familiar subject. His landscape paintings created a symbolic domain in which his conflicting emotions played out. The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden supports Thomas Cole’s argument that humanity’s progression will inevitably lead to the destruction of the environment. His growing pessimism about America’s present and future presented itself as he stated, “If I live to be old enough I may sit down under some bush, the last left in the utilitarian world and feel thankful that intellect in its march has spared one vestige of the ancient forest for me to die by” (13).

Works Cited

  1. Barringer, T J, Gillian Forrester, Sophie Lynford, Jennifer Raab, Nicholas Robbins, and Thomas Cole. Picturesque and Sublime: Thomas Cole’s Trans-Atlantic Inheritance. , 2018. Print.
  2. Cole, Thomas, William H. Truettner, Alan Wallach, and Christine Stansell. Pg. 25
  3. Cole, Thomas. “Essay on American Scenery.” American Monthly Magazine, no. 1, 1836.
  4. 1802, Natural Theology; Or, Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, London: Wilks and Taylor.
  5. J. Robert Wright. “Thomas Cole and the Episcopal Church.” Anglican and Episcopal History, vol. 83, no. 3, 2014, p. 292. JSTOR Journals.
  6. Cole, Thomas. “Essay on American Scenery.” American Monthly Magazine, no. 1, 1836.
  7. Cole, Thomas. “Essay on American Scenery.” American Monthly Magazine, no. 1, 1836.
  8. Cole, Thomas. Pg. 3
  9. Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. “Entry for ‘SWAN'”. “International Standard Bible Encyclopedia”. 1915. 
  10. Cole, Thomas, and Christopher Kent Wilson. “Rediscovered Thomas Cole Letter: New Light on the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.” American Art Journal, vol. 18, no. 1, 1986, pp. 73–74. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  11. Acts, 20: 29
  13. Cole to Reed, 6 March 1836, Cole Papers, NYSL.