After a public-school education in Boston, Cole became an apprentice with Winslow Homer at J. G. Bufford's lithography shop in that city. From 1860 to 1863 he was in France, where he was a pupil under Émile Lambinet and during the winters, studied drawing in government schools. After a sketching trip in Italy, Cole set up a studio in Boston in late 1863 or ealry 1864. With active support from William Morris Hunt, he had sold enough by 1865 to return to Paris, where he studied under Charles Jacque. Cole exhibited in the Salons of 1866 and 1867 as well as in the Universal Exposition of 1867 in Paris, and spent his summers painting in Normandy and Belgium. In late 1870 he returned to Boston but went back to France in 1872, remaining for five years. During this period he exhibited at the Salons of 1873, 1874, and 1875, and frequently at the London Royal Academy. Cole received a medal at the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia. He was back in Massachusetts in 1877, living in Winchester at Mystic Lakes, where, except for brief trips to California and Europe, he spent the rest of his life.
With the exception of William Morris Hunt, few Americans knew the Barbizon artists more intimately than Cole, who had frequent cntact with Troyon, Corot, Daubigny, and Diaz while studying at Jacque's studio in 1865. Although best known for his views of grazing cattle and sheep, Cole devoted increasing time during the last fifteen years of his life to misty scenes of the marshlands and meadows near Providence and Winchester. Although falling short of the symphonic level of much American tonalism, Cole's paintings exhibit an ingratiating, if minor, vein of this late-century phenomenon.
Peter Bermingham American Art in the Barbizon Mood (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts and Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975)