Seth Cole (1829 – 1903) – Page

Seth Cole, Jr. was a well-known late 1800s artist from Alton, NY. In 1984, The Wayne County Historical Society sponsored an exhibition of his works at the Wayne County Museum. The Museum still has a number of his works available for viewing.  In their booklet for the exhibit (‘SETH Cole  Introduction and Catalogue by Sylvia Farrer-Bornath”) Fred H. Rollins wrote the following foreword:

Seth Cole, Ir. (1829-1903) was an outstanding upstate New York self-taught portrait and landscape artist who lived much of his life in Alton, Wayne County, New York. As a young adult, he spent two  adventurous years on a whaling voyage around Cape Horn, Chili, and Peru. The oil landscapes which remain from this South American period show that Cole had already developed a very fine sense of craftsmanship and an original style – while not yet 20 years old.

Cole remains most well-known, however, for his portraits, most of which were executed in pencil. Many of his portraits are of Wayne County residents, both well-known and not so famous. He was an excellent representative of the trade of itinerant artist in late 19th century America; his works were of enough artistic merit to survive serious challenges from the rapidly emerging competition from photographic studios in the 1870’s, 1880’s, and 1890’s.

The Wayne County Historical Society is very grateful to the New York State Council on the Arts, which has provided most of the funds required to make this exhibit possible. The Council on the Arts has also underwritten the cost of this Seth Cole exhibit catalog. In addition, we are deeply indebted to the many lenders to this exhibit, whose generosity and cooperation also made it possible. We are also thankful to Sylvia Farrer-Bornarth, whose tireless efforts brought this project to its fruition.

The Historical Society is indeed honored to be able to sponsor this exhibition of that very versatile, sensitive, and talented fellow, Seth Cole Jr.

Fred H. Rollins


Wayne County Historical Society

Introduction by Sylvia Farrer-Bornarth

“There are lines which are to be seen on every man’s face which indicate to a certain extent the nature of the spirit within him. But these lines are not the spirit which they indicate any more than the sign above the entrance to a store is the merchandise within. These lines upon the face embody what artists term its expression, because they reveal the thoughts, emotions, and to some extent the mental and moral character of the man. The clear perception and practiced eye of the artist will not fail to detect these; and by tracing similar lines upon the portrait, he gives to it the expression which belongs to the face of his sitter. In doing this, so far from transferring to his canvas the soul of his subject, he merely gives such indications of a soul as appear in certain lines of the human face: if he gives them correctly, he has done all that Art can do.”

George Caleb Bingham: The Ideal in Art, 1879;

American Art 1700-1906, Iohn W. McCoubrey,

Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.


Seth Cole was a romantic. He was born into the time when America was experiencing a freedom of the heart and mind to explore and experiment with life in all aspects. At the time of his birth in 1829, Romanticism as a movement was in full swing with the artists Benjamin West, Washington Allston, Thomas Sully, Rembrandt Peale and Samuel F. B. Morse then followed by Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, William S. Mount and George Caleb Bingham. It was a rebirth of the artistic soul of man in a new environment. At the heart of the movement was love of nature whether it was peaceful and Arcadian or the wilderness with man struggling through the rigors of life. There was a sense of wonder, the need to ask questions and explore the sciences. Seth Cole was a disciple of this movement.

Cole (no relation to Thomas Cole) was born in Great Valley near Salamanca in Cattaraugus County, NY. His grandfather, Benjamin Cole, was born in Thurles, County Tipperary, Province of Munster, Ireland, August  1, 1754. A graduate of the University of Dublin, he studied for the Roman Catholic priesthood but eventually joined the British army and came to America with General Howe during the Revolutionary War. Captured by the Colonial army, he joined their forces and served five years, a switch of allegiance which probably made it necessary for him to change his name from Bennett Coleman to Benjamin Cole.

The elder Cole served as chaplain with Washington’s army troops during the Revolution and led the congregation in prayer at an opening session of Congress. When the war was over, he moved to Conway, Mass. There, in 1786, he married Rachael Salisbury. Cole became a Baptist minister and preached for 1.5 years in Conway and then in Vermont for 12 years.

He and his family moved to Phelps, NY around the turn of the century. It seems likely that the move to Phelps was to be nearer his wife’s family. In 1820 he moved to Humphrey, Cattaraugus County (near Salamanca), where he died January 2, 1832..

Benjamin’s son, Seth, was born in Conway on September 7, 1794, and married Lucretia Salisbury (perhaps a cousin) in Phelps, in 1818. He moved to Great Valley near his family for a time, but then moved to Alton, Wayne Co., where he died on October 6, 1881.

Seth Cole, Jr., the youngest of four children, was born in Great Valley on October 20, 1829. He married twice, first in 1855 to Maria Elizabeth Shipman who died in 1869; they had two daughters. Three years later he married an Alton girl, Katharine Espenscheid, who was 23 years younger than Seth. A family story credits Cole with being a ladies’ man of sorts, and the prominent Espenscheid family did not approve of their daughter marrying him. One day Katharine left the back porch (which happened to be across the street from Cole’s house on Main Street) and ran off with Seth, Jr.

Seth, Jr. and Katharine had one son and two daughters. The son, John Fernando Cole, married but had no children. Augusta Caroline Cole married John H. Hicks, a Canandaigua attorney. The Hicks had two daughters, neither of whom married, and two sons. A granddaughter and two great-grandsons of Seth, Jr. are treasuring the legacy left by their illustrious ancestor.

At age nineteen, Seth left the security of his family and ran off to New Bedford, Mass. where he shipped on board a whaling vessel for two years, sailing around Cape Horn, to Chile and Peru. His adventures are documented by the drawings and paintings he brought home. The drawings Cole did on board the whaler showed the same sureness of style that remained steady throughout his career. While on his wanderings he spent some time in Chile where he almost married into a well-established Spanish family. Cole was meticulous in recording information about the places he drew and painted. Because of this, we know that he was a “green hand” on the New Bedford whaling bark Statira captained by James Coon. Most of Cole’s whaling drawings have disappeared in recent years. It is evident from the ones remaining that Cole had developed a very fine sense of craftsmanship and a unique style in his teens.

“The Salisburian,” 1. 2, (1928) a genealogical magazine compiled by Elon Galusha Salisbury of Phelps, New York, has provided most of the background history of the Cole family. “The Salisburian” notes: “When a child in the wilderness o f Cattaraugus County, with pieces of charcoal from the fireplace, he gave evidence of his genius by drawing pictures of objects, without instruction or help. It was his supreme delight to have paper and pencils for his use purchased at the village store, and many sketches of high order were made by him before the age of seven years.” His work beginning with the whaling sketches and ending with paintings from the 1890’s, is marked with the same quality about them. There is a sense of timelessness about Cole’s work, which is carefully executed, finely detailed and monochromatic, using only greys and browns and, in the case of portraits, a faint blush of pink on the cheeks.

Two of the drawings that are preserved from 1849 are the “Island of San Antonio, Cape Verde” with the following note: “First land sighted after leaving port. Drawn from nature.  Sunday, January 1st, 1849 by Seth Cole, Jr. green hand on whaling bark Statira of New Bedford.  Immediately after sketch was finished raised first sperm whale. Our boat (Starboard) took two. Dead calm but busy days work.” The Cape Verde Islands are off the coast of Mauritania, West Africa. The drawing is in pencil with watercolor and fine detailing, mostly greys, with a ship in the distance. The other 1849 drawing is “View of Staten Land from the North 160 miles N. E. of Cape Horn. Drawn from nature by Seth Cole, Jr. February 23rd, 1849.” Cole must have treasured his drawings because he kept them for many years and in 1894, age 65 he copied them in oils. The drawings for these oil paintings are now lost. One of these later paintings is “Island of Juan Fernandez”  drawn April 17th, 1849 from nature by Seth Cole one of the crew of the whaling bark Statira New Bedford, Capt. Jas. Coon. This painting was made in 1894 from the original drawing by Seth Cole (45 years after the drawing).” The painting, on board, is done in muted tones of greys and browns. The Juan Fernandez Islands are 470 miles off Chile and were a favorite place for whalers on Pacific voyages. (Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe in 1719 on these islands.)

Cole returned to New Bedford in 1852, if we can date his activities by his artwork. A pencil drawing with touches of white chalk depicts “Palmer Island, Harbour of New Bedford, Mass. 1852 by a green hand.

The Old Battery at Fairhaven.” A sketch of Fort Ontario and one of Seneca Lake also date from this time. There then seems to be about eight years not accounted for artistically. The next earliest dated drawing is a full face portrait dated 1860 and labeled “Engraving of Joseph Wright 1802-1871. Drawn from life 1860, on stone 1871 by Seth Cole, Jr.” Cole did a number of lithographs, usually of locally prominent people. After 1860 it is possible to trace Cole’s trips to various cities to do portrait work. ln fact, Cole spent the rest of his life as an itinerant portrait artist. Portrait painters could support themselves if they were good enough even after the invention of photography.

Richard McLanathan, author of The American Tradition in the Arts, states: “Those (artists) who continued to paint for a diminishing clientele, even the successful leaders in the field, with few exceptions tended to adopt the hard outlines, texture less surfaces and murky tones of the photograph  the camera provided competition that the portrait painter, whether professional or amateur, could not survive.”

The most interesting portraits Cole executed were his pencil portraits of neighbors, family and friends. Practically all are profiles with just the eyelashes of the far eye showing. Skin tones are delicately treated and every detail of the features of the face are faithfully executed. These drawings, in fact, compare to the daguerreotype and tintype, early forms of photography remarkable for the detail they captured. In many cases a faint blush of color was dusted on the cheeks of the subject by the photographer. Cole does the same thing in his drawings, perhaps his way of competing with the camera. Cole could do what the camera could do plus add a human quality not always found in a photograph.

There is evidence that Cole made direct use of the photograph. A pencil drawing of Henrietta Curtiss done in 1867 is identical to a carte-de-visite photograph of the subject.

Cole supported his family by his portrait work for almost 40 years. He was respected for his work from Syracuse to Buffalo. The Syracuse journal, May 27, 1871, reports, “The crayon sketches by Seth Cole, Jr., who until lately resided here and is now a resident of Buffalo, have for many years excited the admiration of critics as well as of those less competent to judge them of their merits. His portraits were also lifelike and we know of many that are highly prized as the best portrait in oil could be. Through many years, Mr. Cole has closely applied himself and made the art a study and quite recently has entered upon a new and high branch, that of crayon lithography.” On Aug- ’19, 1872, the Journal again reports that Mr. Seth Cole, Jr. of this city has just completed a beautiful crayon lithograph, life-size of the Rev. Dr. Heacock of Buffalo. The press of that city speak in glowing terms of the production.

Cole apparently traveled often around western New York. He did a number of lithographs of several prominent residents of Waterloo in the 1870’s, many of which are in the Waterloo Library and Museum.

To quote again from “The Salisburian.-” “He followed his art work throughout his life and left many specimens of his drafts, especially portraits, in the counties of Seneca, Ontario, and Wayne (New York). He practiced his art in Syracuse and Buffalo and traveled extensively in Spanish South America, sketching scenes and making portraits among the Dons of that land. Although attaining a rare age, his eye did not lose its vision or his hand its cunning.” Cole died in Alton, NY on December 23, 1903.

During the 1890’s, Cole seems to have been interested in religious subjects. Several paintings of “Hope” show a draped woman seated on a pedestal clutching a book and pointing to heaven; on the pedestal is a painting of a ship. He was also interested in astronomy. His painting of the solar system, dated 18%, on heavy pasteboard, shows “the planets Mercury-Neptune with statistics on their diameters and distances from the sun and orbital velocities, asteroids and statistics also on the sun.” This solar chart is in the collection of the Wayne County Historical Society, Lyons, NY along with several portraits that have been donated to the Museum over the years. On the back of the Saxon Gavitt Avery portrait at the Museum is written: “Mr. Cole used to live in the home of the subject for about a week, working, as he expressed it, ‘only when the spirit moved him.’ He measured the features of the sitter with a compass and made the outlines with drafting tools. The outlines were later filled in with black and red crayons. This portrait was drawn in 1881 at a cost of $10. It was donated to the Wayne County Historical Society by Miss Anna Avery, sister of the subject.

A descendant, Thomas Hicks, recalled what his Grandmother Cole said about her husband. “He mastered the Spanish language and also taught himself Greek and Latin,” Hicks adds, “My Grandmother told me that he was known as the walking encyclopedia because of his knowledge of a large number of subjects. She said he frequently would get out of bed at night and consult the dictionary if a word occurred to him and he didn’t know its definition. He also had a hobby of astronomy and, l believe, he tried his hand at some inventions, but l don’t believe any were patented. All in all, he was quite a versatile fellow.”



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