Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on July 10, 2003 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the Juniata College Museum of Art. The essay was previously included in an illustrated catalogue titled Along the Juniata: Thomas Cole and the Dissemination of American Landscape Imagery. The catalogue was first published in 2003 by the Juniata College Museum of Art and the ISBN number is 0-295-98311-6. Images accompanying the text in the book, except for the example below, were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Juniata College Museum of Art at:


William Adams & Sons, Head Waters of the Juniata, after Thomas Cole, c1831-1861, ceramic soup plate, 10 1/2 inches, Staffordshire, England, Juniata College Museum of Art.


Introduction to Along the Juniata: Thomas Cole and the Dissemination of American Landscape Imagery

by Nancy Siegel


After the last spoonful of potage had been consumed, imagine the delight of a nineteenth-century dinner guest finding a landscape scene by Thomas Cole at the bottom of his or her soup plate, revealed under layers of broth, vegetables, and bits of meat. What better complement to such a satisfying meal than reminding the diner of America's bounty, scenic wonders, and the success of democracy in the New World. But how could such overarching sentiments be gleaned from staring at the bottom of dinnerware, and why were American landscapes gracing the bottom of soup plates? The answer has less to do with culinary matters and more to do with the rise in interest in American landscape imagery, a market driven economy, and the value of ornamented utilitarian objects in America between 1830 and 1860. During a short span of time, between 1819 and 1823, Thomas Cole traveled along the Juniata River and across the Allegheny Mountains. He later captured his memories of those days in a drawing, Scene in the Alleghany Mountains (1827), that formed the basis for a painting (now lost), which in turn provided the imagery for a widely disseminated engraving (1831) in John Howard Hinton's book The History and Topography of the United States (1830-1832), and ultimately became the pattern for transfer ware soup plates (c1831-186l) by the pottery firm of William Adams & Sons in Staffordshire, England. This book addresses the popular demand for American landscape imagery in the mid-nineteenth century and the dissemination of such imagery in the art market through engraved and ceramic variations and copies.

At issue as well is the matter of visual fidelity, as this drawing by Cole was transformed through a variety of media into collectible and utilitarian objects. Alterations in imagery occurred throughout this process due to the nature of engraving and transfer ware techniques. However, the essence of the scene always remained intact, reflecting an appreciation for the landscape depicted or at least out of respect for the artist. By 1831, when Cole's scene in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania appeared in engraved form, the demand for original works by the artist was on the rise. Although economic reality often superceded the feasibility of an individual's owning a painting by Thomas Cole, possessing engravings and ceramics with imagery based upon Cole's artistry was the next best thing. The demand for such imagery coincided with an increase in literacy, and when combined with economic and therefore social progress finely illustrated books and periodicals became necessities for the well-adorned American parlor by mid-century. By further extension, the desire to own fine dinnerware by a growing middle class provided a natural outlet for the dissemination of Cole's imagery in the lucrative decorative arts market by Staffordshire designers. With the introduction of social eating in the 1830s came individual portions, a distaste for the shared trencher, and the need for plates and specialized dinnerware. In the case of Cole's imagery on the bottom of Staffordshire soup plates, for example, the object reflects social and societal patterns and when ornamented with scenes from America, a bowl of soup fed both the body and the national spirit.

Appealing to a variety of economic classes and a variety of tastes, the application of Cole's work onto mass-produced items such as engravings and Staffordshire soup plates serves as a case study in material culture as a means of promoting interest in the American landscape through its dissemination to a wide audience. Material culture as been referred to as "the study through artifacts of the beliefs -- values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions-of a particular community or society at a given time."[1] Objects, then, become a vehicle to promulgate needs and wants. In the case of Thomas Cole's work, taste was disseminated through the purchase of objects adorned with the artist's imagery. The intended meaning and the received meaning of these items may have differed, however, as objects with inherent content they functioned as barometers of aesthetic, didactic, and even patriotic significance as a rise in nationalism coincided with a rise of interest in American landscape imagery by the 1830s.



1. Jules David Prown, Art as Evidence -- Writings on Art and Material Culture (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2001), 70.


About the author:

Dr. Nancy Siegel is Director, Juniata College Museum of Art and Assistant Professor, Art History, Juniata College.


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:

and this online video:

Off The Wall: A Pic-Nic Party by Thomas Cole. Off The Wall with Michelle Maryk. In the galleries of the Brooklyn Museum, curator Terry Carbone discusses A Pic-Nic Party by artist Thomas Cole. This series was produced by Gallery HD, a channel dedicated to visual art and the artistic process, catering to a wide array of art lovers. Through visually stunning imagery and compelling storytelling, GALLERY HD is the first and only HD channel... YouTube | September 27, 2007. 2:00

TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Thomas Cole's Paintings of Eden Focuses on landscapes by Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole (1801--1848). Interprets comments on nature, religion, social mores, and environmental issues of 19th-century America. 60-minute video. Description source: Amon Carter Museum Teacher Resource Center

TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format.

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Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Juniata College Museum of Art in Resource Library.

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