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History in the Hills: More art in the valley

I will never be so boastful to say that I know most of the history of our area. How can any one person ever come close to knowing all there is to know about our history?

Doing these articles, I am constantly reminded of, or rather astounded with, all the connections, stories, topics and people that have impacted our area over the years. I am ever aware about what I don’t know rather than what I do know about our area.

One of those interesting connections that I never knew was Steubenville’s connection to artist Thomas Cole. I always had associated the celebrated artist with upstate New York and the Hudson River. He is credited with founding the Hudson River School style of painting, after all. His landscapes are beautiful and have a dream-like quality to them.

I think they are appealing because they show the wildness and vastness of the American landscape in an era when settlers and pioneers were traversing the mountains and moving West. His works are sought after and valuable. My wife’s favorite painting of his, “The Oxbow,” painted in 1836, is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Cole was born in Bolton-le-Moor, Lancashire, England, in February 1801, but by 1818 the family had immigrated to Philadelphia, where his father, James, set up a dry goods store. By 1819, the family was on the move again, this time to Steubenville, where his ever-intrepid father had engaged in the wallpaper business.

In August 1820 James advertised in the Western Herald and Steubenville Gazette his new establishment — “James Cole respectfully informs the public, that he has now on hand, of his own manufacture, a quantity of Paper Hangings, of Various Patterns, which can be had, on application at the manufactory in Fourth Street, Steubenville.”

Young Thomas did have a hand in the business, if nothing else helping his father make wood engravings, as he had done in their Philadelphia shop.

There is another advertisement in the Western Herald and Steubenville Gazette from July 1819 that mentions two Cole sisters, Miss’s M. and A. Cole, who have opened a Seminary for Young Ladies.

These young ladies could be Thomas’s sisters Mary and Ann. The school was not a religious seminary but rather a boarding and day school that, according to the 1819 advertisement, taught reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, geography, history, music, drawing and painting, plain sewing and “all kinds of ornamental and fancy work.” The school was located in a “large and commodious house” on Third Street not far from the Cole’s home near the corner of Fourth and Market streets. The family must have been successful in their business endeavors as a 1933 article in the Herald-Star, reminiscing about the Cole’s time in Steubenville, mentioned that the Coles were the only family to have a piano in the region.

It continues, “The two daughters of the house, Sarah and Annie, played on the instrument and it was deemed so wonderful that each evening a listening crowd would fill the street from curb to curb to hear the sweet strains.”

Cole’s historians believe it was here in Steubenville that he made the decision to be an artist. As was common in the 19th century, itinerant artists would often travel to cities and towns advertising their professions. Often artists would set up in a boarding house and take on clients until enough funds were raised to move on to the next destination.

Around 1820, one of these traveling artists, a fellow called Stein, came to Steubenville and serendipitously met Thomas Cole. According to the New York State Library, which houses the Thomas Cole Papers, Stein “taught him the rudiments of mixing color and lent him a treatise on the theory of color.” Cole’s early studies and sketches included our area, especially the Ohio River and Half Moon Farm to be exact. Earlier that year, Thomas began to teach painting in his sister’s school. An advertisement for the seminary in the Western Herald explains that “Thomas Cole will instruct a class of males and females in painting and drawing.”

By 1823, though, the wallpaper business was failing, and the family moved to Pittsburgh, where James started a business making floor coverings. Eventually the family settled in New York City.

Thomas didn’t stay with the family long. As a young and successful painter, at first painting portraits, he moved on to bigger and brighter things, traveling abroad in Europe and, most important, discovering the Catskills and upstate New York, launching the Hudson River School style of painting so renown in art history.

Thomas Cole died in February 1848 in Catskill, N.Y. It is not known if Cole or any member of his family ever returned to Steubenville or the Ohio Valley, but the impact of the area made a lasting impression on one of the most influential American landscape painters of the 19th century.

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