Thomas Cole’s Hat

Editorial Staff Magazine

Thomas Cole’s hat, on view at Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, in Catskill, New York, prompts a deceptively simple question. What is it to be an artist? The more we think of that question the more difficult and maybe unanswerable it becomes. 

Thomas Cole’s hat and carrying case, nineteenth century. Labeled “WATKINS, 128 FULTON STREET, Sun Building, N.Y.” inside the hat. Greene County Historical Society, on loan to the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, Catskill, New York. 

The hat gives Cole’s answer, at least. The artist is a gentleman, the hat says. The artist is a man of dignified comportment and social distinction. He is a man of delicate sensations and feelings, to judge by the almost eggshell delicacy of that felt-covered cardboard hat with the silk edging around the brim. Cole’s an­swer, however, is not necessarily to be believed, or seen as definitive. Sure, he was right to distinguish himself, right to resist the denomination of the artist, any artist, as a craftsman or even a child, for as a young man Cole had been treated as little more than an itinerant laborer, made to sit at the children’s table when in the company of a haughty patron. Diego Velázquez aspired to be named a Knight of Santiago while the court painter to Philip IV of Spain. Other art­­ists before and after him sought a similar dignity and prestige. The hat in Catskill crowns Cole’s wish for recognition.

But Cole’s answer is an answer of the hat, and not of what the hat conceals. The real riddle is what’s beneath the hat.

One thing beneath the hat is disappointment, bordering on resentment and even pain. Consider Cole’s A Pic-Nic Party, painted in 1846 (Fig. 2).  Scholars and students of the artist know that this large ambitious painting comes from near the end of his career, a span that began in the early 1820s and ended with his death in 1848-a span that coincided with a momentous shift in American politics and commerce, namely, the change to an emergent market culture and prospering mercantile middle class. By 1846, when Cole painted A Pic-Nic Party on commission for a member of that mercantile class, the NewYork banker James Brown, the societal shift was far along; and the place of the artist-perhaps even his very thoughts-had changed accordingly.

Left: A Pic-Nic Party by Thomas Cole (1801-1848), 1846. Signed and dated “T. Cole/1846” at lower center. Oil on canvas, 47 ⅞ by 54 inches. Brooklyn Museum, Healy Purchase Fund B.

That place was anguished. Consider the guitarist who is the central figure of Cole’s painting. Clad in a black cape like Cole wore, playing a guitar like the one Cole played, the guitarist is an art-maker. He has reason to be happy. He’s got a good and appreciative audience, pleasant surroundings, and a dignified place beneath the wide sheltering tree. But look again, first at his audience. Some listen attentively, even admiringly, perhaps ardently (the girl nearest him). But the musician singing his heart out is only the accompanist to the picnickers. The man pouring the wine for the woman-the conversationalists to the right of the tree-the three little kids playing off to the right-the talkers beneath the smaller tree on the bank above the sweet reflective water-the strollers along the verdant alley extending through the wood: most are not attentive to the man’s art.

The singer is bigger, higher up, than all of them. He is like the strong and ancient tree, proliferating upward. The tree might even be the flower and leaf of his song, his notes bending and extending. This tree is so heaven-aspiring, above the earthliness of the picnickers, that the artist might even condescend to them and their ground-bound baskets. But it’s a dubious honor, this business of singing one’s heavenly song before people who, taking or leaving it, regard his art as only a pretty accompaniment to the nice day of their comfort. The big foreground stump with the heartwood exposed-a typical Cole emblem-counters the angled basket at lower left, a contrast of decimated strength and flowing cornucopias. All this when the artist sings for his supper.

Maybe it is better to leave the hat alone-all the more so because what’s beneath it is also a fantasy of omnipotence. Consider Jerome B. Thompson’s Cole-inspired version of a picnic scene, painted in 1857, nine years after Cole’s death (Fig. 3). Like Cole, Thompson shows a musician beneath a tree surrounded by a partly attentive audience. A couple flirts to the left, in their own world. A man reclining at right is rapt in the piper’s song. Thompson’s piper, so sedate beneath the leaves, appears to be one of them, an ordinary middle-class person.

But Thompson’s painting also suggests a more awe-inspiring conception of the artist that maybe was, deep down beneath the hat, also Cole’s own. The flute player is lower than Cole’s heart-straining musician, but in some ways he is stronger, more rooted. His earth-colored trousers, matching the extending branches of the tree above him, root him to his place. The boulders behind the tree are the secure pulpit of his secular preachment, a pagan bedrock of holy striation, as though in this church of nature these people were not just the artist’s audience but his congregation.

And the tree rising up above the piper as the flower of his song is a scary tree. Just about dead but also still giving out leaves, craggy and gnarled, the tree emanates from the flutist as if it were some grotesque expression of himself. Thompson’s hirsute musician, a pantheist, reminds us that the god Pan, with his pointy ears and rampant sensual creativity, is always a frightening divinity, a woodland creature impossible to tame. The piper deigns to be at the level of his audience, among them, even lower than them, but it is all a polite deception. He is actually a god of the forests who might, like that gnarled tree, suddenly, by his art, rise up, become vast, tower and dominate over mere mortals-channeling not just the lightning that’s struck the tree but the tree itself, shivered into bits, some martyr’s cry of heavenly forces, life and death. All this while he takes his tea. The artist may sit among us; but his elevations, as Cole knew, are of a different world.


nd back beneath the hat is a still more disturbing fantasy of omnipotence. In Thomp­son’s The Belated Party on Mount Mansfield, painted in 1858, the elevations are vast (Fig. 4). A group of picnickers, having ascended Mount Mansfield in northern Vermont, contemplates both the view and the hour. At an elevation of some forty-five hundred feet, the hour getting late, they look down at Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks to the west. One among the belated party of six stands up. You will be guessing now what kind of person I think he is. He is involved in some other order of experience than his companions. In the immediate foreground, a man holds up his watch so that the two women seated slightly above him can see the time. A few feet more distant, a seated young man and a seated young woman flank the standing man. That man doesn’t play an instrument like the previous two artists we’ve seen, but he appears to be every bit, even more so, the artist that they were.

Take a look. The two people flanking him contemplate the view, one of them holding onto his hat amid the big winds of that upper atmosphere. The foreground trio meanwhile studies, with a casual alertness, the passing of ordinary time. But the standing fellow, dashingly draped in a wrap-like cloak, stares off to the right, his upright form echoing the lone mount he looks at. The slope of mountain shoulder extending like a vector between the mount and him emphasizes their connection. The cross on that mount, the cruciform fissure at the apex, states the divine vision of this slanty-hatted apostle of solitary communion. His rapt contemplation is oceanic, like the waves of lower mountains undulating below him, and heavenly, like the wispy clouds he seems to have some special relation to. The light-tipped divine-the glint or spark of sunset like the touch of an angel’s wand on Lake Champlain-glows above his head.

This is heady stuff. The man is a visionary, a dreamer and egotist. His mind wraps around the skies. Call him a phrenologist of the horizon. What the artist communes with-and what Thompson, drawing on Cole, brings out so well-is the feeling of an exalted and egotistical elevation. You see then that these energies, too, dwell beneath the hat. And they are rather too gusty to expose ourselves to, as if such a hat-that of the man in Thompson’s painting or Cole’s own-could be blown off by winds inside rather than outside the head.

The crazy artist-the person whose “upstairs” is a little loose, a little ill-tended-this too we might guess at when we wonder about what was beneath the hat. Consider a series of photographs of rooftops in Philadelphia taken by one of Cole’s contemporaries, the novelist Robert Montgomery Bird (Figs. 5, 6). Bird was gifted with a strange imagination, a weird envisioning power, a capacity that extends across his fiction and photographs alike. His novel Sheppard Lee (1836), a story of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls from one body to the next, was much admired by Edgar Allan Poe himself.

Where does the imagination of someone like Bird come from? After his death his wife Mary recalled an incident of Bird’s childhood. “Once, tumbling head foremost on the glassy surface of a frozen pond,” she wrote, “his half-cracked skull impressed a star of such beauty and regularity as set him half wild with delight; spite of the heavy pain.”* That sentence says it all. From Bird’s “half-cracked skull” he made a “star” of “beauty and regularity”-that is, a formal design (crazy Sheppard Lee is a neat structure). And what did this star of beauty and regularity do? It made Bird “half wild with delight.” Such was his pleasure at having made a pattern, made it even without intending to, even by accident-though note that the pleasure of having created it also brings “heavy pain.”

All this is beneath the hat. Or upstairs, in his head. Late in his life, in 1852 and 1853, disappointed with his relative failure as a novelist, Bird-always mindful, always curious, and with an impressive erudition-learned the new medium of photography and made his photographs of rooftops. Using a method of paper negatives and paper positives, adapting the process developed by the French photographer Gustave Le Gray, he made more than a hundred prints in a two-year span. Many of these show the buildings adjacent to his own house on the 900 block of Filbert Street in Philadelphia. Without trying to, these photographs give some sense of the mind-the half-cracked skull-of the person who wrote Sheppard Lee.

That’s because the mind is our upstairs. “Up near the roof all our thoughts are clear,” the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard put it in his book The Poetics of Space. Richard Wilbur’s poem “The Writer” describes his daughter writing a story “in her room at the prow of the house/Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden.” In a silence of her typing, “The whole house seems to be thinking.” The attic is the head of the house.

Just so with Bird, yet with this catch. There’s something a little empty, a little vacant, about his views from on high. Somehow there’s nothing upstairs; or not nothing, for I don’t want to make this into some sure-and-simple bats-in-the-belfry story of a wildly imaginative writer; not nothing, but rather a melancholy vacuity, a retreat or even self-imposed imprisonment from the world. The photographs tell of a person alone with his thoughts, in the daydreams of his isolation. The images are the irrepressible visions of a strong envisioner, the sight lines of the recluse. They show the mind at work, without rhyme or reason, automatically, photographically, producing images of neat lines and jagged corners. Here are the beauty and regularity of the patterns made by the half-cracked skull, alone in the attic of the mind.

Psychological and familial distress is an element of that mind. A hurricane came one June, Mary Bird reported in her biography of her husband. “The elements swept through the upper story, unprotected by shutters, down in a deluge through the ceiling upon the rooms below….The tempest swept unbridled through [the] upper chambers…. A heavy, suffocating atmosphere oppressed our breathing-a frightful stillness reigned.” Her words sound like they describe a domestic dispute. The storms of a writer’s life are a violent emotion. But “Providence was merciful in sparing the roof over our heads.” Bird’s photographs keep the stormy writer’s upstairs intact.

A photograph of Cole’s mind-would it look like these? He, too, was a wild inventor-the hat hides the oddity of his imagination (think of his inscrutable painting The Titan’s Goblet). But it is not finally the craziness of Cole’s ideas-or the turbulence of creativity-that makes Bird’s upstairs such a compelling portrait of Cole’s own. It is instead the way we feel that for Cole, too, thought traveled in some rarefied and stranger air. That air is not the atmosphere of blessed higher meanings, not necessarily, but of how to put together worlds, to shape and build one’s thoughts, the beams and chimneys and dormers of a point of view that no one else shares, that no one else sees as you do, but so that you might share this view with these others who would not see it without you. That is the civic order of the artist’s solitude. Cole’s fantastic painting The Architect’s Dream predicts Bird’s rooftops (Fig. 7).

One last weird feeling runs beneath the hat. Maybe it is more fantastic and unsocial even than these others. It is the feeling that the artist is the recipient of some special-and vexed-gift. In Cole’s case what was that gift? Consider his early painting View in the White Mountains, painted in 1827, showing Mount Washington in the distance (Fig. 8). The picture is a jigsaw puzzle of lights and darks-the mid-ground triangle of dark forested hill descending from upper right to mid-center, the lesser triangle of forested ground descending from mid-left to that same center. Look, too, at the ribbon of dark extending across the bottom of the picture or the oblong swath of sunlight above it. A little figure appears in this band as if he were the spirit of the temporary sun, just as the foreground trees, turning and twisting, personify the darkness they emerge from.

An emotional range of light and dark is all there, so early in Cole’s career. Truly he could feel that he was the inheritor of epiphanic light and thick darkness-the Old Masterly tradition. Their emotional intensity was his-light and dark interfused and blown apart, the whole visual language developed in centuries of European painting, light and dark as a great blowing smoke of revelation, a cascading incense of ecstasy, devasta­­tion, and the like: in short, chiaroscuro.

But Cole was not the possessor of it, and this is the twist-the catch-of the gift he received. By the time he came on the scene in the 1820s, the glorious emotional language of light and dark had fallen into disuse and abandon. No one painted like Rembrandt any more or exactly wanted to paint like Rembrandt-they were, after all, the Old Masters. To be gifted with the grand language of light and dark-to feel it coursing within oneself-was also to feel the waywardness, the homelessness, of that same emotional intensity. Yes, it might be “applied” to the American landscape; yes, all the old feeling of Rembrandt, let’s say, might come to rest and “be” the darkness of an American forest. And James Fenimore Cooper in those same years gave the American forest a rich chiaroscuro-straight out of Rembrandt-in novels such as The Last of the Mohicans.

Yet in Cole’s painting there is still a certain homelessness to these jigsaw planes of light and dark. The inheritance of chiaroscuro was a mixed blessing. Cole could feel himself to be the real deal, to have access to the magical gifts, the depth of light and shade that God-like makes the world, but those gifts exist in his work, as perhaps they did in his mind, as a set of disassembled parts.

So beneath the hat is this feeling: the artist preserves the gift, maintaining it, but without ever having full access to it. Cole’s North Mountain and Catskill Creek, painted in 1838, is another jigsaw (Fig. 9). The sky and tranquil water reflect one another’s light. The darkness establishes itself in furry ragged shapes. Even the kinds of darkness are separate. The dense foliage of the tree at right is unlike the rockier, deader, island of green at left, surmounted by the lightning rod of the dead tree around which a scatter of black birds flies. Things don’t meet in Cole’s art-everything is an island, even the water, even the sky, even the people islanded in their marooned little occupations like the man floating in the boat or the other man letting his horse drink. Cole’s dream is a pattern of parts.

For him light and dark coexist as they do here, dreamily, as in some theme park or zoo of pictorial effects, in a languid and retired estate, a retreat from all that they once were. The two figures in the painting, meanwhile, appear as custodians or keepers of sun and shadow. The man on the right not only lets his horse drink but also allows the water to gaze at his horse, making sure that the liquid’s powers of reflection do not atrophy. The man in the center, there in his boat, not only rows some foliage from one shore to another but also takes some of that shrubbery as if on a mission to feed the reflections. Together these men make sure that this world they preside over-this after-Eden-is kept in proper order, and treated with loving care.

The hat is pretty, the hat is proper. It holds what we do not know, and what it is the only task of art history to describe.