Art History Major Explores Engineering Inventions of Famous Artist

For Aubrey Dettman, a senior double major in mechanical engineering and art history, exploring the life of one of her favorite artists led to a synchronicity in her own research and a discovery that few, if any, art historians or engineers have made.

Student leaning over historic archival papers at the Thomas
Aubrey Dettman, senior engineering and art history major, researches at the Thomas Cole House Museum in Catskill, New York, in spring 2024.

Thomas Cole (1801-1848), the founder of the Hudson River School of American art, is famous for his expansive, pastoral landscapes of New England — and one of Dettman’s favorite artists. She had no idea that Cole also was an amateur engineer. “I started this research after I stumbled upon a diary entry of Cole’s,” Dettman said, “where he described a fluid dynamics concept that I was learning about in one of my engineering classes. Previously, I had only known him as an artist, so I just kept digging and found that no one had researched his inventions or engineering knowledge!”

Dettman decided to go all out in her research. She applied for and was awarded a UA ASSURE grant to research the artist and his interest in engineering. The grant allowed her to travel to two research sites that held Cole’s archives: New York State Library’s Manuscripts and Special Collections in Albany, which houses the Thomas Cole Papers, and the artist’s historic house museum and archive at Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York.

Aubrey Dettman, senior engineering and art history major, presents research at URCA 2024.

After spending spring break in New York researching and writing about her subject, Dettman pulled it all together in a paper and poster presentation, “Thomas Cole Redefined, the Artist as an Engineer and Inventor,” and presented it at UA’s 2024 Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity (URCA) Conference in March. In April, Dettman presented the poster at the Undergraduate Poster Presentation at the UA/UAB Annual Graduate Symposium in Art History. And, recently, she presented a version of her paper at the Hunter Museum of American Art Undergraduate Symposium in Chattanooga.

In her presentation, Dettman pointed out that in Cole’s journal, alongside his sketches of landscapes for future paintings, the pages were also filled with drawings of paddlewheels and other inventions that required an understanding of basic engineering principles. One entry, Dettman discovered, mentioned designs for a rudimentary system for a hydraulic crane, years before a patent for such a device was published in the United States.

Dettman’s next steps are to find out what happened to Cole’s inventions and why they never received patents, and to develop her research into a longer paper with the hope of presenting it next fall. After graduation, she said she hopes to continue her art historical studies: she would like to earn a master’s in materials engineering to support her interest in art conservation work.

For more information about the programs in the UA Department of Art and Art History, go to this page or contact the department at (205) 348-5967.