The Artist in the Garden:

George Cooke (1793-1849) and the Ideology of

Fine Arts Painting in Antebellum Georgia

by Kevin E. O'Donnell


The following is an uncorrected manuscript version of the cover article for Crossroads: A Southern Culture Annual, Macon GA, Mercer University Press, 2004: 73-97. 


The article discusses these three images:





* * *

George Cooke (1793-1849), an itinerant fine-arts painter, visited North Georgia in 1840, soliciting well-to-do patrons at their new vacation homes in the Appalachian foothills.  Cooke was in the region only a year after Cherokee residents had been forced out at gunpoint.  What does his work  tell us about art and ideology in the antebellum south?


During much of the 1830s and 40s, itinerant painter George Cooke (1793-1849) traveled throughout the south, painting portraits, landscapes and townscapes.  Though considered a minor figure, he painted more than 1,000 pictures.  And though much of his work has been dispersed or destroyed, some of his paintings--mainly townscapes and Indian portraits--were lithographed and widely circulated.  In 1991, curators affiliated with the Georgia Museum of Art organized the first show devoted to Cooke's work in more than 150 years.  The resulting exhibition catalog shows how even a small portion of his work provides a remarkable record of antebellum southern culture.[1] 

            Outside of Athens, Georgia, George Cooke is largely unknown today, and even most Athens residents couldn't tell you who he was. But generations of University of Georgia students are intimately familiar with one of his paintings.  The "Interior of St. Peter’s Rome (1847, oil on canvas, 17 x 23-1/2 feet) has hung prominently in the University of Georgia Chapel for 136 years.  As the title indicates, the painting depicts the interior of the cathedral in Rome.  The view, as seen from the great portal, looks out along the length of the high nave.  The work is an exercise in perspective, with all lines converging on a central point--the cross on the distant high altar.  At 17 by 23-1/2 feet, the painting ranks among the world's largest works in oil.  Though the painting's aesthetics are out of fashion now, at least one recent art historian, Estill Curtis Pennington, considers it to be "one of [Cooke's] greatest triumphs." [2] 

During the 19th-century, the people of Athens reserved a special place for the painting.  University of Georgia trustees acquired the work from Alabama industrialist Daniel Pratt after the Civil War.  In 1868, they voted that the chapel be renovated to accomodate the nearly-400-square-foot painting.  At the same time, the chapel was designated as the university's commencement hall.[3] 

The painting has hung in the chapel ever since, and has become part of Athens tradition.  Though decades have passed since the Chapel has been used for commencement, the venue continues to serve for lectures, meetings, and even wedding ceremonies.  The university has continued to take good care of the painting, renovating it a number of times in the twentieth century, most recently in 1995 at a cost to the State of Georgia of approximately $90,000.  An image of the painting is featured at the "University Chapel Home Page," under a link entitled "The Painting."

As a backdrop for lectures and ceremonies, the painting is probably overlooked by many people who see it.  But occasionally, students of art and the 19th century go to the chapel to view the painting.  And what are these modern viewers to make of the work? 

On the face of it, the painting seems to emphasize the enormity and stability of the church--though not necessarily of the Roman Catholic Church in particular.  Cooke himself was baptized Episcopalian and converted to Methodism.  Pratt, the patron who commissioned the work, was a devout Methodist.  But religious denomination may be beside the point.  In the mid-19th century, St. Peter's Cathedral held a special fascination for an American ruling class still enthralled, if only nostalgically, by all things Classical and Roman.  The painting is not about a particular religious institution, then.  Rather it attempts to assert the stability of institutions in general-- of social and cultural institutions, those things that we might nowadays lump together under the term "the patriarchy." 

            But it would be too simplistic to dismiss the work just as another neoclassical prop for the patriarchy.  The Chapel painting is part of a dramatic story that remains largely untold, a story involving not only the painter and his relationship with his patrons but also the history of the rolling countryside surrounding the town of Athens. 

Some art historians have written marvelously about George Cooke, but his ideological role in antebellum American culture has gone largely unexamined.  More generally, as Pennington writes, "Study of the itinerancy of portrait artists in the antebellum South is one of the great missing chapters in the cultural and intellectual history of the region."[4] 

            Cooke himself wrote a travel article about North Georgia, in late summer of 1840, not long after his arrival there.  The piece, "Sketches of Georgia," appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger in November of that year.[5]  When he wrote the article, Cooke was visiting Habersham County and the area around Dahlonega, soliciting well-to-do patrons at their new vacation homes there in the foothills.  Cooke was traveling the region only a year after its former Cherokee inhabitants had been removed at gunpoint.  Taken together with a consideration of his article, Cooke's work shows the interplay between art and ideology in the antebellum south.

* * *


Born in Maryland in 1793, the son of an attorney, George Cooke was interested in art from an early age.  His family, however, did not have the money to pay for his formal training.  As a young man, he tried his hand at mercantile ventures and land-speculation, but abandoned such business for good in his late 20s, in order to work full time at being an artist.  Meanwhile, at the age of 23, he married Maria Heath, daughter of John Heath, of Richmond, Virginia.  (Maria's brother, James, would later edit most of the first volume of the Southern Literary Messenger.[6])  Though lacking substantial family wealth, Cooke was apparently well-connected, and he followed his social and personal connections into the vagabond existence that he would share with Maria for the rest of his life. 

            The 1820s and 30s were difficult times for painters in America.  Cooke struggled continually for money.  Yet he rose to the challenge, and became known for his industry.  He was hard working and prolific.  He was also, evidence suggests, an especially charming man--charm being an important quality for a portraitist, who must spend hours alone with his sitters.  Portraiture was Cooke's bread and butter, yet he aspired to paint histories and landscapes, "in the grand manner of two of his best known American predecessors, Benjamin West and Washington Allston."[7]  Nevertheless, that aspiration seems to have been foiled by the press of everyday necessity.  Mid-twentieth century art historian Virgil Barker judges Cooke in retrospect--and perhaps too harshly--when he speculates that "Possibly [Cooke's] busyness, perhaps something else, kept him from painting very well."[8] 

            In any event, Cooke did well enough by his patrons to fund a five year Grand Tour of Europe for himself and Maria, from 1826-1831.  The "Grand Tour" was a 19th-century travel itinerary through Europe, pioneered by painters, popular with other travelers.  The tour was not a hard-and-fast travel route so much as a set of popular destinations.  It focused on Italy, where painters could encounter and copy the great works of the Renaissance, and of the classical world.  During the first half of the 19th century, the Grand Tour was considered an indispensible part of an education for a young American artist. 

            Among the Americans that the Cookes met in Europe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would become a lifelong friend.  In an 1833 travel book, Outre Mer (the title means, loosely, "Across the Sea"), Longfellow mentions meeting the Cookes in the village of Ariccia, near Alban Lake, outside Rome.  Longfellow passed a full month, August or September of 1828, "in company with two much-esteemed friends from the Old Dominion, -- a fair daughter of that generous clime, and her husband, an artist, an enthusiast, and a man of 'infinite jest'."[9] 

            Cooke and Longfellow appear to have taken to each other instantly.  Letters from Cooke--preserved in the Longfellow Collection at the Houghton Library, Harvard University--reveal a chatty and intimate friendship.  Both the painter and the poet responded intensely to landscapes.  And, as William Nathaniel Banks observes, "both men had a keen, if always decorous, appreciation for feminine beauty."[10]  Apparently, Maria's charm, like her husband's, was considerable, and she was one reason the couple found it so it easy to make friends in Europe.

            Longfellow's description of artists in La Riccia reveals something of the life Cooke led in Europe:


During the summer months, La Riccia is a favorite resort of foreign artists who are pursuing their studies in the churches and galleries of Rome.  Tired of copying the works of art, they go forth to copy the works of nature; and you will find them perched on their campstools at every picturesque point of view, with white umbrellas to shield them from the sun, and paint-boxes upon their knees, sketching with busy hands the smiling features of the landscape.[11]


As Longfellow's remarks suggest, Cooke spent much of his time in Europe copying--that is, painting direct copies of other paintings, working from the originals.  The common practice at the time, before the age of mechanical reproduction, was for American painters to copy master works, not only as part of their training, but also to send back for sale in America.  Their role was to transmit the power and authority of European culture back to monied Americans. 

            The Cooke that Longfellow met in the Italian countryside was lighthearted and affable.  Yet Cooke worked very hard while he was in the city.  As Marilou Rudulph writes, Cooke, when in Rome, "spent every daylight hour painting, with the exception of Sunday and an afternoon each week for his receptions."[12]  Cooke kept this schedule for more than a year and a half, producing at least thirty paintings, many of them copies, plus an early version of the interior of St. Peter's, while also filling sketchbooks with copies and studies.[13]

            During his time in Europe, Cooke continued to send his works back to America, for show and for sale.  In 1830, two of his paintings--including the early version of the Interior--appeared in a Washington D.C. gallery, eliciting the following comments, from a reviewer in the National Intelligencer:


It is hoped that Mr. Cook's {sic} paintings may prove a happy exception to the general fate of American productions, and that he may receive that generous patronage which his talents so richly merit.[14]


* * *


Due to the continuing difficulty American painters had selling their work, Cooke was chronically short of funds during his travels.  To make matters worse, his health was generally poor.  Signs are that, by 1830, he began to tire from the constant work.  He began to long for home.  The great humanist achievements of Europe began to lose their luster for Cooke.  As he wrote in one letter home,


Every object announces that it has long been the theatre of Man's restless passions.  [Europe's] moral and intellectual grandeur like that of her architectural monuments, is mutilated and faded.  I often sicken at the depravity of man, and languish for my native land.[15]


            After leaving Italy to spend time in England and France, the weary Cooke returned to America, landing in New York in August of 1831.  His industrious spirit seems to have revived, however.  By November of that year, he had organized an exhibition of his paintings in New York City.[16] 

            The Cookes spent the next few years traveling between New York City, Washington City (as the nation's capital was then called) and Richmond, Virginia, with occasional forays to Pittsburgh and to various points in the countryside.  By the middle of the 1830s, Cooke was roaming farther south, developing contacts in rural Virginia, in Raleigh, North Carolina, and in Charleston, South Carolina.  All the while, he continued painting portraits and the occasional landscape. 

            Yet evidence suggests that, towards the end of the decade, Cooke was tiring of the peripatetic lifestyle.  He longed for a place to settle down.  He also longed for children, according to some accounts--though he and Maria would remain childless for the rest of their lives, for reasons that go unrecorded.  In addition, Cooke's health continued to be uncertain, and he often found himself fleeing disease epidemics and poor climates during these years.  In 1832, for example, he fled from New York City to the Catskills, due to a cholera epidemic (Rudulph 135).  In 1835, he painted portraits in Raleigh, North Carolina, "until May or June, when the climate became disagreeable."[17]  In 1837, Cooke and his wife returned to Georgetown, which was then outside the boundaries of Washington City.  There he wrote to his brother James, "Who would have supposed after twenty years of wandering I should return to this my starting point and pitch my tent under the same shade that sheltered me in 1817..."[18]


* * *


            As it turned out, there was plenty of work for Cooke in Washington that year.  Cooke's skill as a portraitist had developed dramatically in Europe.[19]  At first, he found commissions in the city through an old friend, Charles Bird King, with whom he had studied for a time during the 1820s.  King had a standing contract in Washington with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, under the War Department, to provide portraits of Indians who were visiting the city.  King had more work than he could handle, and he farmed some of the commisions out to Cooke. 

            During the 1830s, whites were pushing rapidly west across the continent, warring continuously with natives.  Whites, of course, had the superior arms.  Thus, in an all-too-familiar cycle, treaties were made and then broken, followed by new treaties which were broken in turn.  These activities drew a continuous, dispirited procession of Indian delegations to the city.  Visits to Washington were known to be brutal for Indian delegates.  The treaty work itself was grim--during this period, most of the tribes were in the process of ceding their remaining best lands.  Travel to the city was hard, and diseases in the city typically took their toll on the Indians.  It was rare for a delegation to return west without at least a few deaths.

            The Indian portraiture policy that employed Thomas Bird King was established under Thomas L. McKenney, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, in the 1820s.  McKenney's Bureau used portraits as a means of flattery, to smooth the delicate and often heart-rending negotiations with Indian chiefs.  Oftentimes, trophy copies of the portraits were given to the Indians to take with them from Washington.  Some Indians were known to treasure those copies for years afterwards.[20]  In addition to using portraits as a diplomatic tool, McKenney valued them for preserving what he and others regarded as a doomed race.  As McKenney's supervisor, Secretary of War James Barbour, wrote to him in 1832, the portraits were valuable because "this race was about to become extinct, and ... a faithful resemblance of the most remarkable among them would be full of interest in after-times."[21]

            There is no written record of what Cooke thought of the doomed "savages" who sat for him, hours on end, in King's Twelfth Street studio and gallery, that early winter of 1837.  Of Cooke's nine Indian sitters, probably less than half of them spoke English.  Perhaps Cooke tried some of his charm on them.  Certainly there was some cross-cultural misunderstanding.  No doubt, all parties were unerringly polite.  Perhaps some of the sitters sat in silence, as Cooke focused on his work. 

            The Bureau's Indian portraits from this period were destroyed in the Smithsonian fire of 1865.  However, six of Cooke's nine portraits were reproduced as lithographs in the three-volume work by McKenney and James Hall, History of the Indian Tribes of North America, published between 1837 and 1844.  Art historian William Nathaniel Banks wrote about one of one of these lithographs, a portrait of Kish-ke-kosh, a Fox brave.  His remarks may speak to the sad state of the sitters:


When he sat for Cooke, the Fox brave Kish-ke-kosh donned a buffalo skull he had taken in battle from an enemy Sioux and daubed his face with paint; but the expression portrayed by the artist is more woebegone than ferocious.[22] 


Click here to see a small jpeg file of the litho reproduction of Cooke's portrait of Kish-ke-kosh . 


Almost certainly, Cooke regarded at least some of these sitters with something akin to pity.  But did the thought also occur to Cooke that he, himself, temporary resident of the city, would soon be coveting Indian lands? 

            During his remaining months in Washington City, Cooke also found plenty of other work, in addition to the Indian portraits.  The list of statesmen who sat for him in 1837-38 includes the Superintendent of Indian Affairs himself--McKenney--as well as U.S. Senators from Alabama, Virginia and New York, and Congressmen from Maine and Virginia.  Cooke stayed in Washington City through much of 1839, planning and working on other paintings, including a portrait of Henry Clay. 


* * *


But by the spring of 1840, Cooke had returned south.  He took some portrait work in Augusta, Georgia.  By the summer of that year, he was in the north Georgia mountains, the former Cherokee territory.  Shortly thereafter, he arrived with Maria in Athens, where the couple decided to remain for a time. 

            The cultured, well-traveled and pious couple found themselves embraced by Athens' gentry--"a truly Athenian people," Cooke writes.  Especially gracious was Mrs. Augustin Smith (Julia Carnes) Clayton, the widow of A. S. Clayton (1783-1839).  Clayton had been a state judge and one-time U.S. Senator from Georgia, who had died in June of the previous year.  The widow was left with plenty of money, yet she felt the void of the judge's absence.  Cooke writes of her, in a letter to his brother James:


She is... left in affluence with her children all married except the two youngest daughters, aged 7 and 14 [, and she] insists on our staying with her as company and protection--and being a devoted member of the Methodist church, she and Maria agree like two angels in all that is good.[23]


So, without having planned it, the Cookes stayed in Athens, with Mrs. Clayton, into the following spring. 

            Cooke's writings and the couple's subsequent behavior tell us that George and Maria quickly developed a special attachment to north Georgia.  The Cookes were captured not only by the hospitality of the Athenians, but also by the health and beauty of the North Georgia climate.  As Cooke writes, in the article reprinted here,


We find the climate very little warmer than that we left in the mountains, and the atmosphere much dryer and more elastic.  There has not been a case of fever this year, and I am told that there never is any but such as may be traced to the grossest imprudence. 


Months later, while still in Athens, Cooke writes to his brother, with more praise for north Georgia:


We have had another delightful winter in this soft climate, having never seen snow and but little ice.  The last month has been rainy, but not boisterous or cold, and neither Maria or myself have had the least irritation of the lungs for many months--indeed there are invalids now here from Savannah for their health, as to a dryer climate; and I assure you, next to Italy I have seen nothing like it . . . .[24]


            It was later recorded that the couple longed to settle in Athens.  Cooke himself would never realize that dream, though his wife Maria would--without him.  Yet for a time, in the fall, winter, and early spring of 1840-1841, he and Maria found respite in the foothills of North Georgia. 

* * *

Cooke was in North Georgia, as noted earlier, only a year after Cherokee residents were forcibly removed, in the notorious episode now known as "The Trail of Tears."  Background about the Cherokees is crucial to understanding Cooke's work in the region. 

            During the American revolution, most Cherokees aligned with the British.  American armies then invaded Cherokee villages and towns, burning fields and causing severe famine and dislocation.  After the war, surviving Cherokees abandoned the older towns and found a haven in the sparsely populated, mountainous areas of north Georgia, northeast Alabama, and lower east Tennessee. 

            Encouraged by a U.S. government program designed to "civilize" Indians, a number of Cherokees began to adopt white culture.  By the first decades of the nineteenth-century, Cherokees had established single-family homesteads in place of the old multi-generational villages.  Some took up European-style agriculture and stock raising.  Some developed blacksmith shops, mills, looms, spinning wheels. 

            According to historian Theda Perdue, most Cherokees during this era were "traditionalists" who resisted cultural assimilation.[25]  However, those who adopted white ways became, by and large, the tribe's wealthy and prominent leaders.  By 1820, some wealthy Cherokees lived in mansions, raised thoroughbred racehorses, owned fine silver and large libraries.  Although most Cherokees did not own slaves, prominent tribal officials did:  John Ross, the principal Chief of the Cherokee nation for almost 40 years, held 19 black slaves; his brother held 41.  Others held one hundred or more.[26]  Tribal leaders also tended to be of mixed blood.  Ross was said to be 3/4 white, for example.  Almost all the prominent supporters of cultural assimilation, excepting John Ridge, were thought to be at least half-white.

            Twenty-first-century Americans are sometimes unsettled by the idea that the Cherokee leadership promoted white culture.  We like to imagine Native Americans as untainted by, or at least resistant to, European traditions.  However, antebellum whites felt exactly the opposite way.  Many felt that "savage," un-lettered, and un-Christianized Indians were not fully human, and so deserved to be extirminated. 

            Cherokee leaders fought back against this way of thinking by trying to prove that Cherokees could, indeed, "civilize" and adapt white culture.  This strategy was tricky, however, because it supported the idea that Cherokee culture was somehow inferior in the first place. 

            Elias Boudinot emerged as a key figure in promoting white culture among Cherokees.  Boudinot--aka Buck Watie--a mixed-blood born around 1804 in north Georgia, was educated in a Moravian missionary school.  As a young man, he traveled to the northeast, where he adopted the name of a white benefactor and continued his education in Connecticut. 

            In 1825, the Cherokee Council appointed Boudinot to raise money for a printing press that could hold two sets of type--one Cherokee, one English.  The plan was to establish a Cherokee newspaper.  Four years earlier, Sequoyah, aka George Guess, had announced his invention of the Cherokee system of writing, or syllabary.  Boudinot and others proposed to adapt this syllabary to mechanical print.  These efforts would lead to the publication of the bilingual Cherokee Phoenix, the first issue of which came off the new press in Febrary of 1828, under Boudinot's editorship.  Beginning in the spring of 1826, then, Boudinot, as an emissary of the Cherokee Council,  traveled to east coast cities such as Charleston, Philadelphia, and Boston, to raise money for the bilingual press.  His billing as a "civilized Indian" drew crowds, to whom he delivered his "Address to the Whites," a speech that also circulated in pamphlet form.  (This speech has been anthologized in recent decades, notably in the Heath Anthology of American Literature, a popular college textbook.) 

            In his address, Boudinot struggles to refute the common view that Cherokees were unlettered, pagan savages who deserved to be extirpated.  Boudinot emphasizes the steps his tribe is taking towards civilization.  "The shrill sound of the Savage yell shall die away as the roaring of far distant thunder," he writes.[27]  He phrases his argument in the circumlocutory prose of the early-nineteenth-century whites:

It needs not the power of argument on the nature of man to silence forever the remark that "it is the purpose of the Almighty that the Indians should be exterminated."  It needs only that the world should know what we have done in the few last years, to foresee what yet we may do with the assistance of our white brethren, and that of the common Parent of us all.[28] 

Boudinot concludes with a peroration: "shall red men live, or shall they be swept from the earth?....  Will you push them from you, or will you save them?"[29] 

            The stakes were high, in these efforts to promote Cherokee "civilization," and Boudinot knew it.  By promoting Cherokee writing, Boudinot tried to send whites a basic message:  "Look, we can read and write.  Please don't kill us." 

            In the course of arguing for the human-ness of Cherokee people, Boudinot tells his audience about the Cherokee land.  During most of the 1820s, in those years before the discovery of gold in the region, the mountainous area of the southeast was regarded by residents of the east coast as a non-productive wasteland.  At best, it was terra incognita.  In his address, Boudinot touts the advantages of the mountains: 

Those lofty and barren mountains, defying the labour and ingenuity of man, and supposed by some as placed there only to exhibit omnipotence, contribute to the healthiness and beauty of the surrounding plains, and give to us that free air and pure water which distinguish our country.[30]

Boudinot's emphasis on clear air and water here is more than just aesthetic.  American cities in the early 19th century were regularly beset by disease epidemics, including cholera and yellow fever--the same diseases Cooke often fled during his itinerancy. 

            Boudinot goes on to stress the natural beauty of the region, and also the healthiness of the climate:

These advantages, calculated to make the inhabitants healthy, vigorous, and intelligent, cannot fail to cause this country to become interesting.  And there can be no doubt that the Cherokee Nation, however obscure and trifling it may now appear, will finally become, if not under its present occupants, one of the Garden spots of America.[31]

Boudinot's reference to the region as a future "Garden spot" is almost prophetic.  In the early 19th century, the term "garden spot" implied not only arable land but also a place of respite, a vacation land.  Many of the 10 million people who yearly visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park today might understand what Boudinot meant by the term. 

            Modern readers might also hear a prophetic ring in Boudinot's heart-rending, rueful aside--"if not under its present occupants."  Surely Boudinot intuited that the Cherokee territory would end up in white hands.  Nevertheless, even he must have been surprised by how quickly white vacation-home builders would overtake the region, in the handful of years after his address. 


* * *


            The Cherokee Territory remained independent for another two years or so, until gold was discovered there in 1828.  Then the state of Georgia confiscated the land.  Prospectors rushed in to sieze Cherokee fields and homesteads, often at gunpoint.  Opportunistic whites were protected by hurriedly-enacted Georgia laws prohibiting Indians from bringing suit or testifying against a white man. 

            Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson was elected in 1828, and in his inaugural address pushed for an Indian Removal Bill.  After much debate and controversy, The Indian Removal bill narrowly passed Congress in 1830.  By 1832, the federal government was signing removal treaties with many of the tribes remaining in the east.  (Charles Bird King did a booming business at his 12th street studio during 1832.)  At that time, the Cherokees, under principal chief John Ross, refused to sign a removal treaty.

            Violence and turmoil continued in the Cherokee territory.  By 1835, officials of the Jackson administration, in collusion with Georgia politicians, had persuaded a minority Cherokee faction to sign a removal treaty.  Signers of the treaty at New Echota included Boudinot--though he had previously argued long and passionately against removal--and Major John Ridge.  

            The treaty was opposed by the vast majority of Cherokees, however, and the wider public soon came to understand that it was a fraud.  Considerable political and civil opposition arose, especially in the northeast.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his famous open letter to President Martin Van Buren, protesting the removal, in the spring of 1838.[32] 

            Nevertheless, that same spring, General Winfield Scott received command of all U.S. forces in the Cherokee territory, together with reinforcements.  Scott marched under orders to move Cherokees out by force.  By summer of 1838, nearly 17,000 Cherokees had been herded into stockades, at bayonet and gunpoint.  By October of that year, the "Trail of Tears" was well under way.  By the following spring, probably more than 4,000 Cherokees had died, either in the stockades, in transit, or in the Oklahoma territory shortly after arrival.  Ethnologist James Mooney quotes a Georgia volunteer with the Federal Army, who was later a Confederate colonel: 


I fought through the Civil War and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by the thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.[33]


* * *


            Though the Cherokee Removal would not take place until more than a decade after Boudinot delivered his speech, Cherokee land was, in the interim, taken over bit by bit, by well-to-do southern whites.  This land-encroachment occured under circumstances that were questionable even under Georgia laws. 

            Here is how encroachment worked:  In 1832, the state took control of the Cherokee territory that remained in north Georgia.  The state then divided the area into land lots of 160 acres, and gold lots of 40 acres.  The lots were supposed to be raffled off to homesteaders.  Yet, according to historian Wilma Dunaway, irregularities and corruption were rampant.  "Despite state requirements that grantees live on the awarded parcels for at least five years," writes Dunaway, "nearly half the land was held by absentees, two years after the lottery.  In spite of Georgia's 'free' acreage policy, 16 percent of the households held all the land, while the majority of Habersham County families remained landless."[34] 

            Sixteen percent held all the land, writes Dunaway.  And who were these sixteen percent, the beneficiaries of irregularities and corruption?  They were Georgia's land-owning classes, of course--a combination of wealthy tidewater families, deep-south plantation owners, and new-money industrialists.  In short, these are the same people George Cooke sought as patrons.

             If Dunaway's analysis is correct, then these people also constituted, in effect, a kind of criminal class.  That is, if we agree with Dunaway, then we can consider them criminal today, in hindsight.  Moreover, if we're disturbed by ethnic cleansing, if we think the land could have somehow been shared with its occupants, then we might be tempted to affix culpability on Cooke's patrons.  But in antebellum Georgia, the land-encroachers were respectable society, the gentility, the aristocracy of the south. 

            Consider the career of Augustin Smith Clayton, the deceased husband of Mrs. Clayton, the woman who so graciously opened her heart and Athens home to George and Maria Cooke. 

            Born in Virginia, Judge Clayton, as he came to be known, was raised in Augusta and became a prominent Georgia statesman and industrialist.  He entered the state house of representatives in 1810.  Later he became, in turn, a state court judge, a member of Georgia state senate and, finally--succeeding Wilson Lumpkin, who was elected Georgia's governor--Clayton became a member of the United States Senate.  He was also one of the founders of the Athens Factory, an early and profitable North-Georgia cotton mill. 

            Judge Clayton was not only a successful politician and businessman; he was also a man of letters.  In 1835 he ghost-wrote a campaign biography for Martin Van Buren, the Democrat who would succeed Andrew Jackson as president, and who would implement Jackson's final Indian Removal policy.  Clayton's Life of Martin Van Buren, appeared in print under Davy Crockett's name, though it was an open secret that Clayton was the author.  Clayton also wrote a series of articles for the Boston-based Columbian Centinel.  Using "Atticus" as his nom de plum, Clayton wrote a feisty and spirited defense of the policies of the state of Georgia regarding the Cherokees.[35]

            None of this is to point the finger at Clayton and say that himself committed any actual violation of Georgia or U.S. law.  By all accounts, Clayton was an honorable and respectable man in his time.  It's not even clear that Clayton owned "vacation" property in the former Cherokee Territory.  But the point is that Clayton represents the values and ethos of the society that Cooke served with his art.  Cooke's patrons, as a group--the antebellum southerners who payed him money, who enjoyed and displayed his art--were involved in a land grab, and were the direct beneficiaries of one of America's violent episodes of ethnic cleansing.  It seems reasonable to expect that these circumstances will somehow be reflected in Cooke's art.

            When Cooke traveled to North Georgia, he was in the region to sell his services.  One service he provided was cultural legitimation.  In his essay for the Southern Literary Messenger, Cooke delicately refers to the region's having been "recovered from the Cherokees but a few years since."  He sprinkles his descriptions of the landscape with quotes and allusions from Euripides, Milton, Austen and Byron.  He draws comparisons between north Georgia sites and European "Grand Tour" sites that genteel readers would know.  Cooke thus inserts the newly-confiscated landscape into the grand sweep of European tradition.  He meanwhile refers to native occupants of the region only in terms of a romanticized "ancient" myth.  Cooke thus helps to secure the Georgia aristocracy's cultural possession of the land, by writing the area's recent inhabitants into the past. 

            Instead of portraying the region as a contested terrain, then, Cooke writes of Habersham County in 1840 as a "summer resort": 


Habersham has become the summer resort of families from Augusta, Savannah and Charleston; and several gentlemen have purchased and are improving beautiful residences in these salubrious hills. . . 


Cooke goes on to portray the region's new occupants in flattering, soothing terms:


To the artist, and the admirer of the picturesque, these lofty hills and verdant vales, these yawning chasms and foaming cataracts, throw wide their varied beauties, and invite his wandering steps. 


Thus, through the lens of Cooke's artistic sensibility, the north Georgia land encroacher is refigured as an aesthete, a lover of the picturesque.  The recent brutal history is dismissed with a discreet nod to the reader.  "This country, you know, was recovered from the Cherokees but a few years since." 


* * *


            One of Cooke's most distinctive landscape paintings to survive from this period is "Tallulah Falls."[36]  The painting shows Tallulah Falls in Habersham County.  (The site is now called Tallulah Gorge, since the falls were diverted in 1913 by Georgia Power Company, to provide hydroelectric power to the city of Atlanta.) 

            The provenance of the painting is not entirely clear, but by the end of the 19th century it was owned--along with a companion painting of Toccoa Falls, which no longer exists--by R. L. Moss , developer of the hotel that at one time overlooked the Falls.[37]  "Tallulah Falls" is now owned by the Georgia Museum of Art, and a reproduction is on display at the Tallulah Gorge State Park Visitor's Center. 

            The painting owes much to Claude Lorrain--comonly known simply as Claude-- the 17th-century Frenchman who pioneered modern landscape painting in Italy.  Estill Curtis Pennington summarizes some of the elements of Claude's work that influenced Cooke:


Claude perfected the art of the poetic landscape enhanced through subtle naturalistic touches by the use of a strong foreground, people with detailed characters or foliage, a midground which often pulses with commercial or narrative action, and a remote, atmospheric background.[38]


In "Tallulah Falls," viewers can see Cooke has developed all three grounds.  The foreground in this case is peopled with politely dressed tourists, appreciators of the picturesque.  The background recedes into the mist beyond the far rim of the gorge, its atmosphere enhanced by a Claudian golden backlighting.  The middle ground, meanwhile, embodies the power of nature; rather than pulsing with commercial or narrative action, it pulses with the action of the falls themselves, the rushing water. 

            The painting is beautiful and accomplished, if in some ways conventional.  Yet it also sends the same message that Cooke's travel essay delivers.  The painting tells its viewers that the north Georgia landscape is there to be possessed, enjoyed, by the aesthete and the tourist, the purchaser of paintings and the lover of the picturesque.  By showing the middle ground as unpeopled, the painting cleanses the landscape of its recent history, by repressing that history in the minds of its viewers. 

* * *

After his brief respite in north Georgia, commercial circumstances forced Cooke to resume his wandering ways.  He spent much of 1841 and 1842 working the populations centers in the state of Georgia.  He continued as busy as ever.  "Numerous small paintings fill up my odd moments, so that no time runs to waste," he wrote in July of 1841.[39]  Yet he was able to maintain his residence in Athens for a while.  Maria seems to have spent time there, probably with the Claytons, while George traveled.  In the following few years, Cooke roamed beyond Georgia again, as far as Memphis, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans. 

            In New Orleans, early in 1844, Cooke met the man who would become his devoted patron, the man who would commission the painting that hangs in the chapel.  Daniel Pratt (1799–1873) has been called Alabama's first millionaire industrialist.  Born in New Hampshire, Pratt moved south as a young man, and at first made his living as a builder of neoclassical homes.  Early in his career, he made the transition from home-builder to industrialist.  The book jacket of Curtis J. Evans' 2001 Pratt biography summarizes the trajectory of the industrialist's career: 


After moving to Alabama in 1833, Pratt started a cotton gin factory near Montgomery that by the eve of the Civil War had become the largest in the world. Pratt became a household name in cotton-growing states, and Prattville—the site of his operations—one of the antebellum South’s most celebrated manufacturing towns.


            The relationship between Pratt and Cooke quickly became unusually close.  As William Nathaniel Banks writes, "At the age of fifty, sometimes discouraged, often ill, and tired of his peripatetic life, Cooke met the man destined to pay the highest tribute to his art."[40]  In New Orleans, Pratt took Cooke in and gave him two upper floors of a warehouse on St. Charles Street, for Cooke to use as a gallery and studio. 

            Within a few years, Pratt had determined to build a wing of his luxurious house in Prattville, to be dedicated almost exclusively as a gallery for Cooke's paintings.  It was common at this time for industrialists to patronize the fine arts.  Yet, as Banks observes, "it was certainly unusual for a collector to create an art gallery primarily to display the work of a single artist."[41]  Around this time, Pratt commissioned the enlarged version of "Interior of St. Peter's" to fill one end of the gallery.  This is the same painting, remember, that now hangs in the UGA Chapel.  Cooke spent the most of two summers, 1846 and 1847, completing this one enormous painting.  He wrote of its effect, after it was installed in the gallery, that "when you enter the [gallery] door the whole church with its arches and colonnades in perspective will appear as in nature."[42]

            Gratified as he was by Pratt's patronage and friendship, Cooke found that his life continued to be as difficult and vagabond as ever.  His health during this period continued to decline.  He traveled widely, during what would turn out to be the last year of his life, dividing his time between New Orleans, Prattville, and Washington City, where he was frustrated in his pursuit of powerful politicians whose portraits Pratt had commissioned him to paint.  He also managed at least one trip to Athens in 1848, apparently still with the hope of establishing more permanent residence there. 

            Alas, it was not to be.  In March of 1849, Cooke contracted cholera in New Orleans and died within forty hours.  Thus, Cooke succumbed to the very disease he had hoped to escape in Athens.  Marilou Rudulph, in her account of Cooke's death, "It is like a doleful poem that Cooke knew so many cities and countrysides, but never a permanent home."[43] 

            Cooke wrote in his will that he wished to be buried where he died.  Nevertheless, Maria thought it better to have his body interred at Prattville, where it could be near his paintings.  The body lies there still, marked by a nine-foot monument, in the Pratt cemetary, on a hillside overlooking the town. 


* * *


            In the meantime, Maria Cook appears to have found a home for herself in Athens.  It's not recorded where she lived in the dozen years after her husband's death.  But in July of 1861, she married lawyer Asbury Hull (1797-1866), a prominent Athenian.  Her new husband, during his lifetime, had served in the state legislature and as cashier of the State Bank; he was president of the Southern Mutual Life Insurance company, and also the treasurer of the University of Georgia for 47 years.  Such a distinguished husband offered the promise of rootedness and stability.  Still, times couldn't have been easy.  This was during the Civil War, after all.  Maria and Hull spent the war years together.  Shortly thereafter, in January of 1866, Hull died at the age of 70. 

            Around the time of Hull's death, the gallery at Pratt's house in Prattville was discovered to have dry rot.  Since it was attached to the house, the gallery was torn down, to prevent the rot from spreading.[44]  The Cooke paintings were dispersed.  At this time, Pratt offered to donate the the "Interior of St. Peter's, Rome," to the University of Georgia.  According to the minutes of the Trustees meeting, the painting would be offered only under the condition that the University provide a suitable place for it.  The minutes quote Chancellor Lipscomb:


I recommend that the College Chapel be so enlarged and refitted as to answer the twofold purpose of a Commencement Hall and an Art Building.  I suggest that this provision be made for the acceptance of this magnificent donation.  (qtd by Rudulph 151)


According to Rudulph, the decision to place the painting under the protectorship of the university was influence by the now re-widowed Maria.  "She was eager to have the painting in her adopted city," writes Rudulph.[45]  To Maria, the painting was, in a sense, coming home to rest. 

            And there it continues to rest, more than 130 years later.  Visitors to Athens can still encounter it today, if they make their way over to the University Chapel on the Old North campus.  Between about eleven a.m. and noon, when the sun's rays in the chapel align with the sun's rays in the painting, the trompe l'oeil effect is most convincing, and viewers can perhaps imagine how the painting looked in the Pratt gallery for which it was commissioned.  Or, better yet, they can imagine the view as it appears "in nature," as if they're seeing the actual interior of Christendom's greatest cathedral. 

            In the empty chapel, to an attentive viewer, the painting projects an aura of stability and order.  Yet the painting is also a bit too insistent, in its excessive size.  Underneath its enormity lies the hint of an anxiety--an anxiety about its northern-born patron's place, perhaps, in the swirling, emerging economic order of a rapidly industrializing south--or an anxiety about the legitimacy of property rights, for an aristocracy whose dominance on the mid-South was built on a handily-repressed historical injustice?  In view of Cooke's rootlessness, the painting at least suggests the opposite of what it portrays.  From the painter consigned to wandering comes this representation of a fixed, ordered place. 



[1] Keyes, Donald D., ed.  George Cooke (1793-1849)  [Exhibition Catalogue], with Additional Essays by Linda Crocker Simmons; Estill Curtis Pennington; William Nathaniel Banks.  Athens: Georgia Museum of Art, 1991. 

[2] Pennington, Estill Curtis.  "Time in Travelling: Intimations of the Itinerancy of George Cooke."  Keyes, p. 23-32.

[3] Abney, Beth.  "George Cooke and the Chapel Painting."  Papers of the Athens Historical Society 2 (December 1979).  p. 64. 

[4] Pennington in Keyes, p. 24.

[5]George Cooke [unsigned].  "Sketches of Georgia."  The Southern Literary Messenger 6 (November 1840): 775‑77.  The article is anthologized in Kevin E. O'Donnel and Helen Hollingsworth, eds.  Seekers of Scenery: American Travel Writing from Southern Appalachia 1840-1900.  Knoxville: U of Tennesse P, 2004.

[6] Mott, Frank Luther.  "Southern Literary Messenger."  A History of American Magazines 1:1741-1850.  Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1930.  p. 631-34. 

[7] Pennington, p. 27.

[8] Barker, Virgil.  American Painting: History and Interpretation.  New York, Macmillan, 1950. p. 404.

[9] Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth.  Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea.  New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1893 (1833).  p. 335.

[10] Banks, William Nathaniel.  "George Cooke, Painter of the American Scene."  Antiques CII, 3 (September 1972).  p. 449. 

[11] Longfellow, p. 346-47. 

[12] Rudulph, Marilou A.  "George Cooke and His Paintings."  Georgia Historical Society Quarterly XLIV, 2 (June 1960). p. 128. 

[13] Banks, p. 448.

[14] Quoted by Simmons, Linda Crocker.  "Chronological Survey: The Life of George Cooke."  Keyes.  p. 12.

[15] Quoted by Rudulph, p. 129. 

[16] Simmons, p. 13.

[17] Simmons, p. 15.

[18] Quoted by Simmons, p. 16.

[19] Keyes, p. 60.

[20] Viola, Herman J.  The Indian Legacy of Charles Bird King.  Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976.  p. 51.

[21] Quoted by Viola, p. 13.

[22] Quoted by Banks, p. 451.  See Keyes 100, for an account of Cooke's Indian Portraits.  Also see Rudulph 139-40.  See Viola for an account of King's work and relationship with McKenney.

[23] Quoted by Keyes, p. 66.

[24] George Cooke to James Cooke, February 6, 1841, quoted by Keyes 66. 

[25] Perdue, Theda.  Introduction.  Cherokee Editor: The Writings of Elias Boudinot.  Ed. Perdue.  Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1983.  p. 32. 

[26] Perdue, Theda.  Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society, 1540-1866.  Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1979.  p. 58-59. 

[27] Boudinot, Elias [Buck Watie].  "An Address to the Whites, Delivered in the First Presbyterian Church [Philadelphia], on the 26th of May, 1826, by Elias Boudinott [sic], A Cherokee Indian."  Cherokee Editor: The Writings of Elias Boudinot.  Theda Perdue, intro. and ed.  Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1983.  p. 74.

[28] Boudinot, p. 70.

[29] Boudinot, p. 71.

[30] Boudinot, p. 71.

[31] Boudinot, p. 71.

[32] On opposition to removal in the northeast, see Richardson, Robert D., Jr.  Emerson: The Mind on Fire.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.  p. 275-79.

[33] Mooney, James D.  "Myths of the Cherokee."  Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1897-98; in Two Parts--Part I.  Ed. J. W. Powell, Bureau Director.  Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1900.  p. 130. 

[34] Dunaway, Wilma.  The First Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700-1860.  Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1995.  p. 64. 

[35] The articles were republished in Athens as A Vindication of the Recent and Prevailing Policy of the State of Georgia, both in Reference to Its Internal Affairs, and Its Relation with the General Government, in Two Series of Essays . . .  Athens GA: O.P. Shaw [published at the Office of "The Athenian"], 1827. 

[36] "Tallulah Falls." 1841; oil on canvas, 35-3/4 x 28-3/4 inches.  The painting is reproduced in Keyes' exhibition catalog, page 89, and also on the cover of this annual.

[37] Keyes, p. 88.

[38] Pennington, p. 28.

[39] Quoted by Simmons, p. 18.

[40] William Nathaniel Banks.  "George Cooke and Daniel Pratt: An Improbable Friendship." Keyes.  p. 41.

[41] Banks, "George Cooke and Daniel Pratt," p. 39. 

[42] Banks, "George Cooke and Daniel Pratt," p. 43.

[43] Rudulph, p. 149.

[44] Rudulph, p. 151.

[45] Rudulph, p. 151.