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Home | Articles | Curator's Choice: Thomas Cole's Mill Dam on Catskill Creek

by Susan Strickler

Cole embodied in his life’s work a significant duality, revealing on the one hand a Platonic sense of nature as morally, religiously, and philosophically uplifting, and on the other a remarkable ability to capture the natural fact.1

Among Henry Melville Fuller’s recent bequest of sixty American paintings to the Currier Gallery of Art is Thomas Cole’s (1801–1848) Mill Dam on Catskill Creek, 1841. Founder of America’s foremost group of landscape painters, the so-called Hudson River school, Cole was at the height of his career when he created Mill Dam. The painting demonstrates the artist’s views on the complex relationship of man and nature in a landscape both idealistic and realistic.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Cole helped evolve American landscape painting well beyond topographical depiction into “a force for moral improvement.” Embedded in his landscapes are vignettes from history, literature, and religion offering social commentary within scenes of the American wilderness or pastoral views of the Old World. Among his most provocative works were his ambitious multi-canvas series, The Course of Empire (1836; New-York Historical Society) and The Voyage of Life (1840; Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York), in which he ambitiously addressed such universal themes as the progress and dissolution of civilization and the stages of life.

Thomas Cole (American, 1801–1848), Mill Dam on Catskill Creek, 1841. Oil on canvas, 22 1/4 x 30 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the Currier Gallery of Art; bequest of Henry Melville Fuller.

Cole painted the picturesque Mill Dam on Catskill Creek for his devoted patron, Jonathan Sturges, a prominent New York businessman and art collector.2 The painting was most likely completed in the artist’s rural New York studio shortly before he left for a trip to Europe. In 1836, Cole had settled in the village of Catskill, about 100 miles north of New York City. At his home and studio, the surrounding mountain landscape provided him with a fertile source of motifs. The profiles of nearby Round Top Mountain and High Peak and the meandering Catskill Creek are clearly visible in several pastoral views he painted in the 1830s (for example, View on the Catskill—Early Autumn, 1837; Metropolitan Museum of Art). Mill Dam, however, was an imagined scene, perhaps composed in part from sketches he made on walks near his studio.

Clearly inspired by the beauty of the Catskills, Cole’s Mill Dam and other works lament the deforestation of the countryside. The construction of the Catskill and Canajoharie Railroad moved him to pen his distress over man’s intrusion into the pristine forest, which he attributed largely to commercial avarice:

Last evening I took a walk up the Catskill above Austin’s Mill, where the Rail Road is now making— This was once a favourite walk but the charm of quietness and solitude is gone—it is still lovely, man cannot remove the mountains, he has not yet felled all the woods, and the stream will have its course. If men were not blind and insensible to the beauty of nature the great works necessary for the purpose of commerce might be carried on without destroying it, and at times might even contribute to her charms by rendering her more accessible—but it is not so—they desecrate whatever they touch.3

Mill Dam may be interpreted as a hopeful statement on the eventual recovery of nature in the face of an increasingly industrialized world. At the center of the composition is a dilapidated mill approaching such disrepair that it will soon become only a remnant of a manmade edifice. Vigorous mature trees, whose strong arching branches are silhouetted against the glowing late afternoon sun, reach out over the stumps of trees that might have been harvested for lumber sawn at the mill. A lone fisherman, casting from the right bank, is diminished in scale and importance by the abundance of nature around him. Cole does not portray man as a threat to nature in Mill Dam, but rather as a creature living simply and harmoniously with the natural world. In this quiet, serene view, nature seems to have overcome the potential ravages of civilization, just as Cole had predicted in his monumental series, The Course of Empire.

Susan Strickler is Director of the Currier Gallery of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire.


  1. Alan Gussow, A Sense of Place: The Artist and the American Land (Washington D.C.: Island Press, 1997), 37.
  2. The painting corresponds in subject, date, size, and arched format to one of three canvases by Cole that Sturges lent to the 1848 memorial exhibition at the American Art Union honoring the artist soon after his death.
  3. Thomas Cole, “Thoughts and Occurrences,” 1 August 1836, Cole Papers, New York State Library, Albany. Quoted here from John K. Howat et al, American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987), 129.

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