THOMAS COLE, like so many of his contemporaries, had the sublime on his mind; that and Revelation. How characteristic of him to declare when viewing two lakes at Franconia Notch that he was "overwhelmed with an emotion of the sublime such as I have rarely felt. It was not that the jagged precipices were lofty, that the encircling woods were of the dimmest shade, or that the waters were profoundly deep, but that over all, rocks, wood and water, brooded the spirit of repose, and the silent energy of nature stirred the soul to its inmost depths." Art historian Barbara Novak, who has a flair for aptly quoting the artists themselves, rightly begins Nature and Culture by showing to what extent the painting of landscape was not only the dedicated concern of Cole, but also of his peers, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, John F. Kensett, Martin Johnson Heade and many other American artists.

How could they paint historical pictures in a country yet undiscovered and only partly settled? Landscape would be an "effective substitute for a missing national tradition . . . a repository of national pride." The fascination with landscape had already taken the popular imagination. Scenes painted on long, rolling strips of canvas were wound and unwound, one of them covering 45,000 square feet of fabric. Audiences filled public auditoriums, buying tickets as moviegoers do today to see, for instance, Henry Lewis' Mammoth Panorama of the Mississippi River in the Louisville Theater in Kentucky. For the price of 50 cents dress circle and parquet, 25 cents second tier of boxes, one could watch enthralled every passing vista from St. Louis to the Falls of St. Anthony. "The gradual unwinding," we are told, "took several hours. . . . Commentators and pianoforte music complemented the visual image." The rollers, alas, wore out; few if any survived.

But the taste for seeing big landscape pictures did not wane. Artists took to their easels, and although they didn't paint on such a massive scale, the effect of grandiloquence, "grand opera," as Novak puts it, was still in evidence. Bierstadt's Rocky Mountains, oil on canvas, was 73 1/4 by 120 3/4 inches. One viewer, after waiting awhile asked, "when the thing was going to move"! Another jumbo, Church's Heart of the Andes, was also one of the most popular pictures of the time; it measured 66 1/8 by 119 1/4 inches. Is it at all strange that Church's The Icebergs, after being lost and forgotten for decades, upon surfacing at an auction recently, sold for $2 million? Obviously the early 19th-century taste for "grand opera" has continued.

Cole's "silent energy" and "spirit of repose" seems hardly a good description of these large "machines." In them, volcanoes erupt, ice floes crack, waterfalls, ocean waves, river rapids roar, herds of bison thunder as they cross the plain, and even in the remote heights of the Rockies hawks scream and lightning fells giant conifers. Can we think of these panoramas as "silent"? But to be fair, Cole had gradually moved away from dramatic spectacles to the reveries he experienced at tranquil lakes and serene sunsets where all tumult vanished. Painters now bear witness to nature's beatitude, the peacefullness which comes with contemplation. Many others, Kensett, Fitz Hugh Lane, Durand, Heade among them, cultivated quietism as a way to transcendence. How apt to have called such artists "luminists," for their vision is a concern with light as it reflected God's graces. When painting, as the current exhibition of their work at the National Gallery shows, they obviously heard neither bird nor frog.

Still, these 19th-century artists, when not being "subjective," astonish us with their almost frantic energy. They climbed mountains, crossed deserts, explored dangerous Indian territory, penetrated the Arctic, slept on the ground, ate dried biscuits and wild game. The more they explored, the more they were convinced of Divine Purpose and America as a chosen nation overflowing with natural bounty and primal goodness. At no time were they disturbed in their understanding of nature by the rapidly developing sciences. The advances in geology, botany, meteorology, paleontology were only further proof of Divine Planning. The world-shaking publications of Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859 failed to ruffle their faith in perfection. Certainly not the cheerful Emerson, whose optimism, unlike the dark uneasiness of Melville or Hawthorne, was universally felt.

Even so, the wilderness began to go. The axe was felling forests, towns and cities were spreading, the great Indian communities were destroyed. The spectacular triumphs of the railroad completed the task of making America a society powerful in itself and not much later a power in the world. The artists were perhaps dimly aware of the dramatic changes, and the new ones coming up wondered whether the techniques of art should not be reexamined. Pragmatically, the U.S. government was conducting the great western surveys on a huge scale with new scientific instruments, above all the camera. A group of brilliant photographers was documenting every square mile of the continent.

A new generation of artists, as well as many of the older ones, was skeptical of the esthetic formulae so widely adhered to by successful painters for whom Claude and Poussin were the perrnnial models. The migration to Italy to experience the charms of Rome and the Campagna began and continued for a few years. Some went to Germany, some to England. It is dubious that the travelers were exposed to or would have apprehended the achievements of the art unfolding in France or in the North. With Ruskin they liked Turner, but found Courbet wanting. Eventually, the Campagna and the Roman ruins became untenable; they gradually drifted home. By now the Arcadian dream, the golden visions had also faded. The new America had gone through the beastliness of the Civil War and progress had won the day.

Today some of us find the American landscapists of the 19th century too provincial, too limited to be of interest if they are compared to Ingres, Delacroix, Corot, Cezanne, the Impressionists, or that astonishing genius of the North, Caspar David Friedrich. Yet their place in the history of the process of making a culture in America cannot be dismissed. This process is the subject of Barbara Novak's remarkable study. It is remarkable because her scholarship is impeccable: she has finely described the mental climate surrounding not only the artists, but also the serious efforts of those philosophers, theologians and writers who supplied the intellectual victuals. Best of all, Novak writes stylishly, and as an historian is gifted with the ability to construct a narrative which like all good storytelling holds our attention. The dividends for a careful reader are a splendid bibliography, fulsome notes and a working index. There are 150 illustrations, eight in full color, all of which are placed near the paragraphs to which they pertain.