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Idealized Memory in Thomas Cole’s Cross in the Wilderness

Idealized Memory in Thomas Cole’s Cross in the Wilderness

Glenn Fisher, Ph.D. Student

Fig. 1  F.E. Church, To the Memory of Cole, 1848.  Private Collection.

Fig. 1 F.E. Church, To the Memory of Cole, 1848. Private Collection.

When Thomas Cole died in 1848 he was universally mourned in the art community. Cole’s allegorical paintings had made him famous among colleagues and the public at large. Cole’s student, F.E. Church, was so moved by Cole’s early death that he painted a memorial work that was lost until it was rediscovered in 1980, hanging in the Des Moines Women’s Club.[1] Church’s painting shows a lonely stone cross in the American wilderness that Cole loved to depict in his own work. Church’s To the Memory of Cole, however, bears a striking resemblance to a particular cross Thomas Cole painted three years earlier.

Inspired by a poem written by celebrated British poet Felicia Hemans, Thomas Cole created a small, oval painting that showed an Indian chief mourning the death of a beloved white missionary.[2] Clearly, Cole’s Cross in the Wilderness idealized Native Americans, the American wilderness, and Christian missionary endeavors. Other than the simple cross, there is no hint of the enduring presence of the white man let alone the inhuman fate of so many Native Americans. Only the noble savage, the selfless missionary, and the perpetual virginity of the wilderness remain in Cole’s work.

Fig. 2 Thomas Cole, The Cross in the Wilderness, 1845. Oil on canvas, 61cm x 61cm. Paris, The Louvre.

Fig. 2 Thomas Cole, The Cross in the Wilderness, 1845. Oil on canvas, 61cm x 61cm. Paris, The Louvre.

By the end of his life, Thomas Cole was greatly distressed over the destruction of American wilderness, which he equated to the great architectural and historical treasures of Europe.[3] Church must have been aware of Cole’s anxiety over American progress and the loss of American wilderness. What meaning then did Church attach to a lonely stone cross in the wilderness? Church depicted Cole’s memorial in an idealized space that never really existed; an ideal, timeless space. Church intended Cole to rest in the heart of the mountains he loved and enjoy the perpetual sunset and the billowing clouds of a storm that would never arrive.

For more on Thomas Cole, his work and life visit:

http://www.thomascole.org/

Glenn Fisher, “Idealized Memory in Thomas Cole’s Cross in the Wilderness,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), December 13, 2012, https://khronikosum.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/idealized-memory-in-thomas-coles-cross-in-the-wilderness/.


[2] Felicia Hemans, Poems of Felicia Hemans: A New Edition (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1860) , xi.

[3] David Bjelajac, “Thomas Cole’s Oxbow and the American Zion Divided”, American Art, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Spring 2006), pp. 76-77.

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