Thomas Cole was born February 1st, 1801 in Bolton, Lancashire, England. In 1818 his family emigrated to the United States, settling in Steubenville, Ohio, where Cole learned the rudiments of his profession from a wandering portrait painter named Stein. However, he had little success painting portraits, and his interest shifted to landscape. Moving to Pittsburgh in 1823 and then to Philadelphia in 1824, where he drew from casts at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he rejoined his parents and sister in New York City early in 1825.
In New York he sold three paintings to George W. Bruen, who financed a summer trip to the Hudson Valley where he visited the Catskill Mountain House and painted the ruins of Fort Putnam. Returning to New York he displayed three landscapes in the window of a bookstore; according to the New York Evening Post, this garnered Cole the attention of John Trumbull, Asher B. Durand, and William Dunlap. Among the paintings was a landscape called "View of Fort Ticonderoga from Gelyna". Trumbull was especially impressed with the work of the young artist and sought him out, bought one of his paintings, and put him into contact with a number of his wealthy friends including Robert Gilmor of Baltimore and Daniel Wadsworth of Hartford, who became important patrons of the artist.
Cole was primarily a painter of landscapes, but he also painted allegorical works. The most famous of these are the five-part series, The Course of Empire, now in the collection of the New York Historical Society and the four-part The Voyage of Life. There are two versions of the latter, one at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the other at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York.
Cole influenced his artistic peers, especially Asher B. Durand and Frederic Edwin Church, who studied with Cole from 1844 to 1846. Cole spent the years 1829 to 1832 and 1841-1842 abroad, mainly in England and Italy; in Florence he lived with the sculptor Horatio Greenough.
After 1827 he maintained a studio at the farm called Cedar Grove in the town of Catskill, New York. He painted a significant portion of his work in this studio. In 1836 he married Maria Bartow of Catskill, a niece of the owner, and became a year-round resident.
Thomas Cole died at Catskill on February 11, 1848.