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On the trail of Thomas Cole’s menacing White Mountains vision

Thomas Cole, "A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (Crawford Notch)," 1839Courtesy The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

CRAWFORD NOTCH STATE PARK, N.H. — In August 1826, a great mass of stone shook loose in the early morning hours and tumbled down a mountain near Crawford Notch, its wake a mash of rubble and pulverized pines. Square in its path sat the Willey family, their house hunkered down near the valley floor on the banks of the Saco River. The thunder of cascading rock had given fair warning, rousing them from their beds and sent them running for their lives. It was an awful mistake. The advancing landslide split in two on a rock ledge and spared the house, but swallowed the family whole as they fled in the blackness. Rescuers found the home untouched, beds unmade, a bible open on the table. Outside, in the stone shelter they’d built for this very purpose, lay the broken bodies of both parents, two daughters, and a pair of hired hands. Three of the Willeys’ children were never found.

Do you see that old, sad tale in Thomas Cole’s “A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (Crawford Notch),” from 1839? If you don’t, you should. The Willey family’s story was more than tragic. It was a leering disaster-porn tabloid smash-hit that made national news. It also sparked the rapid evolution of the area’s tourist trade, seduced by danger and inflated by opportunism. And among those drawn to the notch was Cole.

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Today, the Willey House is a replica with an interpretive center, perched alongside Route 302 as it winds neatly through the mountains (the original, which became an inn serving the brisk business disaster brought, burned down in 1898). Across from the house are tidy little campgrounds, each fitted with a fixed-in-place grill. Well-groomed walking paths arc into nearby woods.

Under spotless blue sky, I trekked alongside the river one recent afternoon, soaking up sun and drinking in views of the slopes looming above. In the near distance was Mount Washington, sparkling with its blanket of early spring snow. It was quiet and serene, soothing in its stillness. That’s not what Cole chose to capture, his canvas brimming with menace. The picture, part of the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is a thorny standout amid the era’s abundant bucolic scenes of the White Mountains, created by a who’s who of American landscape painters: Albert Bierstadt, Benjamin Champney, George Inness, John Frederick Kensett, and many more.

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A view of the Willey House Historical Site.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Dona Brown, in her fascinating 1995 book “Inventing New England: Regional Tourism in the 19th Century,” speculates that the painter saw an opportunity for wider fame in the notch’s aura of disaster. Cole first came here in 1827, just a year after the Willey tragedy, urged by his patron Daniel Wadsworth. Still in his 20s, Cole had had some success with his paintings of the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, but his quest to embody a uniquely American form of Romanticism, which dominated European painting of the day, had barely begun. In the years to come, he would be seen as the father of the Hudson River School and American Romanticism more broadly. On that first trip to the White Mountains, though, he was still a young painter in search of himself.

Wadsworth had hoped Cole would find in the mountains the inspiration to fan his nascent reputation into full-blown stardom. The disaster narrative, no doubt, would help. Its fame was expanding relentlessly, in both the tourist trade and the cultural world. Ethan Allen Crawford’s family, large landholders for whom the notch was named, had for years run a small inn and tours in the mountains for the few adventurers rugged enough to make the journey. For him, the Willey tragedy was “a great and wonderful catastrophe,” he once wrote, that had “caused a great many this fall to visit the place.” It made for booming business. He went so far as to put a marker where the bodies were found for his guests to visit.

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In the years that followed, lurid fascination would bring a stream of tourists and luminaries alike. Crawford’s guest register included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving, Daniel Webster, and Henry David Thoreau (and, of course, Cole). On a trip to the notch in 1832, Nathaniel Hawthorne seemed to grasp its possibilities acutely. Writing to a friend, he explained that his “northern tour” had been made “on account of a book by which I intend to acquire an (undoubtedly) immense literary reputation.” A few years later, he published “The Ambitious Guest,” in which a traveler stops for the night at a family homestead built at a notch in the mountains. A rumble and heave of unsettled stone prompts them to make a run for it; outside, they’re crushed in their tracks, while the house survives untouched.

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Maybe it was the seamy exploitation of the tragedy that lead Cole to leave the notch without painting it in 1827, though he captured a handful of benign vistas he saw on the trip. He wouldn’t attempt the notch for another dozen years. Or perhaps Cole, still a fledgling artist with only a first blush of success, felt out of his element, yearning for the softer contours of the Catskills, the lush banks of the Hudson, the place he felt most at home. (Of the White Mountains, Cole wrote to Wadsworth, “in such sublime scenes ... man sees his own nothingness.”)

Cole, it could be fairly said, was a sensitive sort, a man of temperance and faith for whom the wonders of nature were comfort and solace, nearer to God. He loathed cities, finding in them “a presentiment of evil,” as the historian Matthew Baigell once wrote. In the proliferation of roadways and railroads, Cole saw a threat to the divinity of the natural world. In the Catskills, he would make the work that defined a school of American realism — his many early paintings of Kaaterskill Falls, shrouded in beatific mists; views of the low rolling mountains from above Schoharie Creek, west of Albany, bathed in a sunlit gold.

Cole’s Romanticism had scant kinship with his British forebears, with their paintings of manicured lands. (John Constable, whom Cole once met on a British sojourn, found the divine not in the tidy farmlands and stone churches he painted, but in the great, unearthly clouds looming above.) No, Cole’s Romanticism was wilder, an embrace of a land untamed. You could never question his devotion — flights of faith and imagination led him to paint scenes from the Bible in much the same way he did the Catskills. He was equally devoted to nature as the divine, to God’s work on earth.

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The view of Crawford Notch from the Willey House. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

As his renown grew, so did his opposition to the march of progress, by now flowing freely up the Hudson Valley. In 1836, he wrote his influential “Essay on American Scenery,” a fretful account of encroaching industrialization on his beloved wilds. “There are those who regret that with the improvements of cultivation the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away,” he wrote, “for those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has been lifted, affect the mind with a more deep-toned emotion than aught which the hand of man has touched.”

When Cole decided to paint the notch, more than a decade after his first visit, I like to think it was with a clarity of purpose and mind. With the country hurtling rapidly into industrialization, he had seen opportunism run rampant, capitalizing on tragedy while plowing under nature. In the years since his first journey, family inns had been replaced by large-scale resorts; tourists flowed in and out like herds.

Cole had warned of the folly of human ambition before, of life out of balance with the natural order. His “The Course of Empire” series depicted the rise and decay of civilization, beginning with a savage land and ending with urban ruins. What would he think of the backwoods he left in 1827, now finding them overrun with newly-made villages and holiday crowds?

I don’t know, but the painting offers clues. Cole was a realist, but you can see in his pictures the rush of transcendental wonder, a yearning for divine communion. In this painting, you can also read his alarm. His trees are ominous, glowing with the fiery tones of autumn. Elephant Head, the craggy mountain face that dominates the middle of the frame, bristles like something alive; Cole drags it forward in the frame so it looms far more massive and imposing than in real life. Dead trees twist in the foreground. Above, a storm gathers, dark clouds snaking toward the mountain. A figure rides along a mountain path, oblivious, heading to the Notch House Inn. In the distance, a stagecoach rumbles toward the notch. All around, ragged stumps litter a clearcut field, clear signs of invasive human action — an affront.

Cole had made similar paintings, warnings of a delicate balance being upset. “View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After A Thunderstorm (The Oxbow),” from a few years before, captures the valley below quilted into sections of farmland; as in “Crawford Notch,” an angry storm builds in the top left of the frame — retribution, maybe, at hand.

Cole had been drawn to another part of the Willey story, one that deepened the irony of their demise. The father, Sam, spooked by an earlier slide, moved the original family homestead from its site at the notch to the gentle slope where its replica now stands. Still wary, he built a stone shelter outside the house should the worst come to pass. That’s where he and his family were found.

Cole’s painting is the site of that first slide — harmless to the family, but for the anxiety that put them in the path of doom. With its angry skies and razed forest, Cole issued a caution: To defy nature is to invite calamity. As we sit on the brink of our own global climate disaster, could he be more right?


Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.