Dream of Arcadia
- Thomas Cole, American, 1801-1848
- Born: England
Thomas Cole was born in England (1801), the only boy in a family of seven children. His family moved to America in 1818, where his father started a wallpaper factory. At the age of 18, Cole was given a book on painting and fell in love with the medium: “This book was my companion day and night, nothing could separate us—my usual avocations were neglected—painting was all in all to me. I had made some proficiency in drawing, and had engraved a little in both wood and copper, but not until now had my passion for painting been thoroughly roused—my love for the art exceeded all love—my ambition grew, and in my imagination I pictured the glory of being a great painter.” Cole was a self-taught artist who eventually became a very successful landscape painter. He spent his childhood in an industrial area of England, and upon moving to America, fell in love with the landscape of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and later with the Hudson River valley. He was not content with being, as he said, “a mere leaf painter,” and felt the need to take the field of landscapes to a higher and more sophisticated realm. He sought to bring moral and religious meaning to his landscapes.
The theme of Thomas Cole’s Dream of Arcadia is man’s relationship to unspoiled nature. Cole felt that the American wilderness was beginning to disappear as a result of the industrialization of the nation. In this painting, Cole harks back to the land of Arcadia, a rustic, secluded area of ancient Greece. The people who lived in Arcadia led simple, happy lives, in harmony with nature. Cole creates an idyllic image of an unblemished landscape—one where people frolic in the trees, sheep roam the hillside, and children play in the gentle river. Cole was greatly inspired by the work of Claude Lorrain, a French landscape artist who painted roughly 200 years before him. “Claude, to me, is the greatest of all landscape painters,” said Cole. Cole used many of the same artistic devices that Claude used in his paintings, such as the luminous distance, the large trees in the foreground that frame the painting, and elements of architecture in the middle ground. Claude often emphasized the effects of light in his paintings—something Cole focused on as well in Dream of Arcadia.
Light & Shadow
Cole used the sunlight to create contrasts of shaded and warmly lit areas. Highlighted details create a visual path back into the painting.
On the cliff sits a complete Doric temple bathed in sunlight. The Doric order was the earliest and simplest of three orders of Ancient Greek or classical architecture. Notice the impossible reflection of the temple in the stream below—a detail that adds to the magical feeling of Arcadia.
The smoke rising from the front porch of the temple signifies the burning of a ritual sacrifice.
A city sits in the distant background, cut off from the foreground by a river and some trees. In the groves, forest, and fields of Arcadia, the humans find surroundings that are beautiful and fresh.
Under the trees on the left side of the painting young men and women relax, play music, and dance. Their clothing seems rural and is reminiscent of styles of ancient Greece.
Shepherd & Goats
The shepherd can be seen as a symbol of man’s harmony with nature through his relationship to his natural surroundings.
Despite his skill with landscapes, Cole always had a hard time painting people. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “Worst of all is the inhabitants of [Arcadia]—I found them very troublesome, very—They have almost murdered me!”
The people in the left foreground are participating in a ceremony that involves a herme, which is a square stone pillar surmounted by a bust. This particular bust could be an image of Pan, who was the guardian of Arcadia. Due to the large number of flowers, it could also be a ceremony dedicated to Flora, the goddess of flowers.
Cole’s signature was discovered on a boulder in the foreground while the painting was being cleaned in 1967. Prior to this, there were questions as to whether this particular painting was the original, since it measured smaller than the recorded measurements of Cole’s work. But when it was removed from the frame, it became apparent that the canvas had been folded back for framing.
A web resource about Thomas Cole where you can see his home, read about his life, learn about the Hudson River School, and view scenery from the Hundson River School Art Trail.
Frank, Dan, and Daniel Halpern. The Nature Reader. New Jersey: Ecco Press, 1996.
Selections of nature-inspired literature by various authors.
Howat, John K. The Hudson River and Its Painters. New York: Viking Press, 1972.
A history of the Hudson River School of painting, its artists, with many examples of work.
Kazin, Alfred. A Writer’s America, Landscape in Literature. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1988.
Selections of writing about great American landscapes from different authors, accompanied by commentary and artwork.
Knott, John R. Imagining Wild America. United States: University of Michigan Press, 2002.
This book presents and discusses works by authors like Thoreau, Abbey, and James Audubon, who wrote about an untamed land.
National Geographic Society. Heart of a Nation: Writers and Photographers Inspired by the American Landscape. Washington D.C., 2000.
Selections of writing and stunning photography motivated by the beauty of American landscape.
Robertson, D.S. A Handbook of Greek and Roman Architecture. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1954.
A portrayal of the history, techniques, various buildings. and aesthetics of the classical architecture tradition.
Rushton Fairclough, Henry. Love of Nature Among the Greeks and Romans. New York: Copper Square Publishers, Inc., 1963.
This book illustrates how nature was incorporated into various aspects of Greek and Roman culture, including their mythology, art, and poetry.
Sealts, Jr., Merton M., and Alfred R. Ferguson, eds. Emerson’s Nature: Origin, Growth, Meaning. New York: Dodd-Mead and Company, Inc., 1969.
A text revolving around Emerson’s ideas about nature.
Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.
The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.