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Mill Dam on the Catskill Creek

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Mill Dam on the Catskill Creek

oil on canvas
22 1/4 in. x 30 1/4 in. (56.52 cm x 76.84 cm)
Bequest of Henry Melville Fuller, 2002.20.19

Thomas Cole


Often referred to as "the Father of the Hudson River School," Thomas Cole was the first painter to consistently celebrate the American landscape in his work. Born the son of a textile manufacturer in England, Cole commenced his career as an engraver of calico designs before immigrating with his family to Philadelphia in 1818. Following a brief trip to the West Indies in 1819, Cole rejoined his parents and siblings in Steubenville, Ohio, where he began to teach drawing and painting at a ladies' seminary run by his sisters. In 1821 Cole learned oil technique from an itinerant portraitist, and for a time he traveled throughout Ohio taking portrait commissions. By 1823, however, he was back in Philadelphia, supporting himself by painting landscapes and scenes of everyday life.

Cole moved to New York City in 1825. There his novel wilderness landscapes caught the attention of several important personages, including John Trumbull (q.v.), president of the American Academy of Fine Arts. Cole's reputation grew rapidly during the latter half of the 1820s, and by the time he had returned from a study trip to Europe (1829-32), he was widely regarded as America's leading landscapist. His allegorical landscape series The Course of Empire (1835-36, New-York Historical Society) and The Voyage of Life (first version 1839-40, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY) were enormously popular and ensured the artist's fame through the remainder of his career. Cole became an important influence on many younger landscapists, including Frederic Edwin Church (q.v.), Jasper Francis Cropsey (q.v.) and George Inness (1825-1894). The artist died unexpectedly of pneumonia in 1848.

One of Cole's favorite subjects was Catskill Creek, which he depicted with great frequency both before and after his permanent move to the village of Catskill, New York, in 1836. For Cole, the scenery along the Catskill afforded beauty and repose, forming the picturesque counterpart to his more sublime wilderness landscapes. Serene rather than terrible, Cole's Catskill views proffer an image of America as a New World arcadia wherein man and nature might coexist in harmony.

The Currier's Mill Dam on the Catskill Creek is a typically tranquil view. Reflected in a placid pond in the foreground, a mill appears in the center of the composition, bracketed by lush trees and green meadows. In the distance, a view of lake and mountains dissolves into a blue-gold sky reminiscent of those in Cole's Italian landscapes. On the near edge of the pond, the figure of a fisherman adds a note of human interest and possibly a moral dimension as well.

As with Cole's more overtly allegorical compositions, the elements in Mill Dam probably have a didactic function. Despite its apparent tranquility, the painting contains a cautionary note directed toward the artist's contemporaries. In his private writings, Cole often decried the impetuous "go aheadism" of the Jacksonian period, seeing in America's rush to make money a dangerous disregard for the virtues of thoughtfulness and meditation. At the same time, Cole felt that unchecked development was ruining the beauty of nature. Although the mill in Cole's painting appears picturesquely antique to modern eyes, nineteenth-century viewers probably understood it as a relatively new structure, thrown up overnight as a result of waterpower speculation. Wooden uprights grounded directly in the wet gravel of the riverbank as well as unevenly planked and unpainted walls all seem to indicate hasty construction. In an era whose architectural ideal was the symmetry and pristine whiteness of the Greek Revival, such a structure as Cole's mill could only have been read as ugly. Along the same lines, the cut stumps in the lower left deliberately contrast with the trees standing nearby, highlighting the deleterious effects of industry on the natural landscape.

More hopeful in aspect is the figure of the fisherman on the opposite bank. While the mill points to the shoddiness and ugliness that arise from the desire to make fast money, the angler exemplifies the value of contemplation and the possibility of living in nature rather than destroying it. From the first appearance of Izaak Walton's book, The Compleat Angler in the seventeenth century to the present day, fishing has been associated with solitude and meditation. Alone on the banks of a lake or stream, the fisherman turns his thoughts to spiritual things and to the higher meaning of life. For Cole, who was an ardent Christian, the quiet beauty of nature provided an impetus for man to contemplate God. As a concrete embodiment of solitary reflection, the image of the angler stands as an alternative to the shallow and wasteful excesses of Jacksonian capitalism.

Mill Dam was originally owned by Jonathan Sturges, a New York entrepreneur and collector who sympathized with the artist's views.(1) In 1837 Sturges commissioned an "imaginary" Catskill landscape from Cole, writing: "I shall be happy to possess a picture showing what the valley of the Catskill was before the art of modern improvement found footing there. I think of it often and can imagine what your feelings are when you see the beauties of nature swept away to make room for avarice-we are truly a destructive people."(2) Painted a few years later, Mill Dam underscores the concerns of both artist and patron, yet it is not without hope. Although it occupies a central place in the composition, the mill is, after all, a rather small and flimsy element in a landscape filled with natural beauty. Pointing to the presence of God through Creation, the angler looks to nature as if wholly aware of the ultimate insignificance of man and his enterprises.

Mill Dam on the Catskill Creek was bequeathed to the Currier Museum of Art in 2002 by Henry Melville Fuller.



1. Susan Strickler, "Thomas Cole's Mill Dam on Catskill Creek," The Catalogue of Antiques and Fine Art, Summer 2002, 204-205, 205 n. 2.

2. Jonathan Sturges, quoted in William H. Truettner and Alan Wallach, eds., Thomas Cole: Landscape into History, ex. cat. National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC; 1994, p. 74.


Ellwood C. Parry III. The Art of Thomas Cole: Ambition and Imagination. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1988.

Susan Strickler. "Thomas Cole's Mill Dam on Catskill Creek." The Catalogue of Antiques and Fine Art, Summer 2002, pp. 204-205.

William H. Truettner and Alan Wallach, editors. Thomas Cole: Landscape into History. Ex. cat. National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC; 1994.

1848 American Art - Union, New York, NY, "Exhibition of the Paintings of the Late Thomas Cole." no. 20.

1963 Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, "American Paintings of the 19th Century." Jan. 13 - Feb. 24.

1963 Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., New York, NY, "American Painting." April 9 - May 4.

1966 Cummer Gallery of Art, Jacksonville, FL, "Mid-19th Century American Painting from the Collections of Henry M. Fuller and William H. Gerdts." July - Aug., no. 11.

1968 "Primative to Picasso: St. Paul's School Alumni Collect." Organzied by St. Paul's School, Concord, NH. Venue: M. Knoedler and Co., New York, NY, Dec. 2 - 21, cat. no. 55.

1971 "19th Century American Painting form the Collection of Henry Melville Fuller." Traveled to: Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, Sept. 18 - Oct. 17; Mead Art Building, Amherst College, Amherst, MA, Oct. 27- Nov. 24.

1975 National Academy of Design, New York, NY, "A Century and a Half of American Art." Oct. 10 - Nov. 16.

1992 Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, "The Currier of the Future: New and Promised Gifts." Feb. 25 - May 24, cat. no. 7.

2002 Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, "19th Century American Paintings: The Henry Melville Fuller Collection." Feb. 2 - March 11.

2004 Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH, "Celebrating the Collection: Recent Acquisitions." Feb. 13 - Mar.14.

2015 Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH, "From Birds to Beasts: Audubon's Last Great Adventure." May 23 — Aug. 30.

2019-2020 Thomas Cole National Historic Site, " Thomas Cole's Refrain: The Paintings of Catskill Creek." Aril 28 - Nov. 3, 2019; Hudson River Museum, Nov. 22, 2019 - Feb. 23, 2020.

Jonathan Sturges (at time of 1848 exhibition)
Edward Ward McMahon Collection
Gift to Brooklyn Public Library
Purchased by Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., New York, NY
Purchased by Henry Melville Fuller, 1963
Bequest to Currier Museum of Art, 2002

Additional Images
Additional Image Detail - unframed
Detail - unframed

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