Thomas Cole's "Dream of Arcadia"

Inside the Collection: Dream of Arcadia

Inside the Collection is a series from the DAM's curatorial team detailing the history and significance of a piece from our collection. Find an archive of art stories on our blog and explore more by viewing our entire collection online.

The English-born artist Thomas Cole studied in Philadelphia for two years and plied his trade as a portrait painter and engraver before turning to landscape painting. His move in 1826 to Catskill, New York on the Hudson River coincided with his growing reputation as a foremost painter of America’s pristine wilderness and with an increasing recognition among writers of the era that such images possessed moral benefits.

Not content with being, as he said, “a mere leaf painter,” Cole recognized that unadorned landscape alone was insufficiently worthy as a subject of fine art. Instead, he strove to balance nature with examples of prior landscape paintings by other artists. The mindset of his patrons not only demanded such references—in the case of this painting to the works of the French artist Claude Lorrain. They also expected such images to contribute moral values, which in turn may explain the allusions to classical architecture set amidst a landscape setting reminiscent of the Hudson River Valley. Cole’s American wilderness recalls Arcadia, a rustic, secluded area of ancient Greece where people led simple, happy lives in harmony with nature.

Image: Thomas Cole, Dream of Arcadia, about 1838. Denver Art Museum Collection: Gift of Mrs. Lindsey Gentry, 1954.71.