At first glance, Thomas Cole’s River in the Catskills may seem like a typical nineteenth-century landscape, but it is in fact unusual among American landscapes of its time. Inspired by British notions of the picturesque found in natural scenery and Cole’s own writings on landscape, River in the Catskills presents an idyllic pastoral world removed from the realities of modern industrialization and urbanization. But one small detail, found upon close inspection of the background, sets it apart: a steam locomotive, an unequivocal symbol of industrial development. This work is considered to be the earliest known American oil painting to depict a train.
As an uncommissioned work, River in the Catskills stands out among Cole’s several other painted versions of the natural scenery of the Catskills. The artist had moved to the town of Catskill in 1836 with his new wife, Maria Bartow. Over the years he had witnessed the town, also a major shipping port, grow and then decline, with an ultimately unfinished railroad development project that was in process for over ten years. In addition to squandering large sums of money and causing local conflict, the advent of the railroad worried local residents who treasured their familiar natural scenery. It was in this atmosphere that Cole began painting, and thus perhaps preserving, the landscape that surrounded him. Yet River in the Catskills diverges from Cole’s other renditions in its exploration of the tensions between nature and industry. Unlike other versions of the scene, this composition limits the lush greenery and includes the train, along with other markers of encroaching civilization: a collection of houses—probably a town—also appears; steam or smoke rises from the horizon, possibly indicating the presence of another train or a factory. In the foreground stands the scene’s main figure, a man in an eye-catching red coat, holding an axe, amidst a clearing of fallen trees. The attention drawn to the figure raises the question of man’s relationship to nature. Does the path to civilization and its improvements come only at the expense of clearing away the untouched American landscape?