THOMAS COLE, Among those coming to Steubenville about 1819 were the Coles, having with them their son Thomas, born at Bolton-le-Moore, Lancashire, England, February 1, 1801. The family occupied the Floto block, since remodeled on the west side of Fourth street just above Market adjoining the house on the corner of Market (now Commercial National Bank), where Alexander and Joseph Beatty were born. They had a piano, the only one in all the region. The daughters, Annie and Sarah, who taught at school in Steubenville, would play on the instrument, and it was such a wonderful thing to hear a piano that each evening the listening crowd outside would fill the street from curb to curb and as far up and down the street as the sweet strains could be heard.
The elder Cole was a wall-paper maker, having followed this business in England. On the site of the Hartje paper mill stood the Cole wall-paper factory, wherein was displayed wonderful genius in the manufacture of beautiful wall hangings. The father designed the blocks from which the paper was printed, and it was from him that his son inherited his genius. Thomas, who was about nineteen years of age at that time, was a valuable assisstant to his father, for even then he was a colorist as well as a fine draughtsman. His first work was on the old-fashioned but beautiful decorated window shades, the painting being on specially prepared muslin. He made many sketches of the scenery of this region, and it is said that portions of the landscape of his "Voyage of Life" were taken from sketches made by him on the Ohio River, the scenery being that from Brown's Island to Mingo.
Cole was a sedate young man, caring nothing for the sports of his day, and was never known to be in any of the "scrapes" laid to the door of his contemporaries. He was a member of the Thespian Society, which gave dramatic entertainments in Bigelow's brick stable at the rear of the present site of the United States hotel,. Connected with this stable was Samuel Tarr's pottery. Captain Devenny was associated with the society as a supernumerary. The last members of this society living were E.G. McFeely and J.D. Slack. Cole painted the scenery for the stage and became adept at this art.
While in Steubenville Cole created quite a sensation by appearing on the street on a velocipede--an old fashioned bicycle--propelled by the feet striking the ground. Whenever he rode on this vehicle he would have a large troop of boys at his heels. When he moved away he presented his wheel to Joseph Beatty. Mr. Cole left Steubenville in 1825 for Zanesville and from there went to Philadelphia, and New York where he made a reputation as a scenic painter, being in fact the originator of the American school of landscape painting, and drawing his first inspiration from the Ohio hills. He died at Catskill, N. Y., on February 11, 1848, and his funeral oration was delivered by William Cullen Bryant, who tells how he happened to leave Steubenville.
"A portrait painter named Stien coming along fascinated Cole, and he at once with such rude colors as he could command, began to paint and was soon able to establish himself as a portrait painter, " the only thing lacking being patrons and for them he started on a tramp. This was the same Stien who painted the Wells portraits. Bryant says the pictures he painted in New York attracted the attention and praise of Durand, Dunlap and Trumbull and from that time, "he had a fixed reputation, and was numbered among the men of whom our country has reason to be proud." He went to Europe in 1831, and on his return to America his friends said of him that he had lost his American spirit which gave his pictures their character before leaving for Italy; but he soon recovered his old-time enthusiasm and regained the good opinion of the critics. His greatest picture was the one, or rather the series of five pictures painted for Luman Reed, of New York, called the "Course of Empire", in which are presented, to use Cole's own words, "an illustration of the history of the human race, as well as the epitome of man, showing the natural changes of landscape and those caused by man in his progress from barbarism to civilization, to luxury, to the vicious state, or the state of destruction, and to the state of desolution." Many of his works were of this character, and included "The Departure" and "The Return", "The Dream of Arcadia", "The Voyage of Life", "The Cross in the Wilderness"; other works are "Home in the Woods", "The Hunter's Return", "The Mountain Ford", and "The Cross and the World".
His biographer says of him: "In all his relations of life his amiability and generosity were engagingly displayed, and to those who could sympathize with his enthusiastic and impressive nature, he especially endeared himself. His life was one of singular purity, and in the latter part of it he manifested a sinceere and unostentatious piety." Cole was also a poet and in his papers were found many beautiful descriptions of his paintings in verse of considerable merit, but none of his literary work was ever published. He left a son, Reo Thomas Cole, now rector of Trinity church, Saugerties, N. Y.