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Thomas Cole: Artist, Romantic, Anti-Jacobin

Thomas Cole's "The Ox-Bow" (Public Domain)

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) was the leading American painter of his generation and at the front of what became known as the Hudson River School of landscape artists. Currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “THOMAS COLE’S JOURNEY: ATLANTIC CROSSINGS” emphasizes his connection to the painters who influenced him and those he influenced. With originality and brilliance, the exhibition ties Cole to England and Europe, giving this major American artist an international context. On the other hand, its “reexamination” of Cole as an agent of environmental awareness is trendy and unconvincing.

“THOMAS COLE’S JOURNEY” is not a full-blown retrospective, but it does bring together a critical mass of Cole’s finest creations to great advantage. Presenting the artist at distinct stages of his career, it includes some rarely seen studies and works. Claude Lorrain, John Martin, John Constable, and J.M.W. Turner, along with Frederick Church and Asher Durand, fill out Cole’s oeuvre. One can’t help but wonder what works the able curators Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser and Tim Barringer could not land to fill out the production. (The show will go to the National Gallery in London this fall where it will benefit from Turner’s Dido Building Carthage and other works in the permanent collection.)

Born in England in 1801, Cole moved with his family to the United States when he was 17, where he was at first an engraver. For instruction, he turned to William Oram’s Precepts and Observations on the Art of Colouring in Landscaping, a book with a profound effect on his style. John Trumbull and others soon recognized his talent, and he found sudden success as a landscape artist in New York City.

For all his naturalism, Cole was not a realist but a romantic. His lavish color and polished surfaces pleased ambitious collectors, then decorating large classical houses, buying paintings and portraits, and crafting fine furniture based on English and continental models. Cole’s landscape paintings, executed in a tight, meticulous style with romantic flair, constitute a large part of his output.

Cole celebrated the majestic American wilderness that thrilled European romantics from Goethe to Chateaubriand. As did others aspiring to the sublime, Cole sought to fuse landscape with the grandeur of history and legend. As early as 1828, in TheGarden of Eden, Cole displayed his metaphysical ambitions amid lush, palmy, tropical scenery of the kind he sketched in his West Indian travels. These pictorial dramas mix mysticism with melodrama, and sometimes the results come up pretentious, strange, or contrived. The exhibit includes The Titan’s Goblet, a hokey crowd pleaser from the Met’s own collection and a curiosity often connected to surrealism, an ahistorical association that would have horrified Cole.

In 1829, Cole went to reside in London, where he met Turner and Constable. He found Turner’s shambling personality disappointing and disagreeable. A subsequent Grand Tour changed his life. Traveling first to Florence, Cole was determined to improve his figure painting, and a studio exercise displayed here shows the results. Cole stayed in Rome for four months, making fine studies of the Forum and Colosseum. A panoramic, sharply drawn view of Florence from San Miniato with a luscious orange and lavender tone, done from sketches several years after his actual visit, is both theatrical and breathtaking. So is a ruined aqueduct near Rome.

After his return to the United States in 1832, Cole led a country life in Catskill, New York, living on the Hudson River, where he painted studio landscapes and Italian vedute for rich clients while working on elaborate allegorical tableaus. Cole was immensely popular during his lifetime. When TheVoyage of Life, a moral parable of life’s four stages, was exhibited publicly in several cities during the 1840s, it drew half a million visitors.

The exhibition’s centerpiece is TheCourse of Empire, on loan from the New York Historical Society. Completed in 1836, the five-panel cycle takes its title from Bishop George Berkeley’s 1729 poem on America, which begins “Westward the Course of Empire takes its way,” a watchword of the era. Illustrating what Cole called Savage State, Pastoral State, TheConsummation of Empire, Destruction, and Desolation, the episodes span the rise and fall of an unknown but distinctly classical civilization. Its center, Consummation, larger than the other paintings, was originally entitled Luxury. The cycle follows a dramatic arc, from dawn until dusk, illustrating an imaginary world history.

As Cole’s trajectory unfolds, the rise and fall of civilization brims with vignettes: first, hunters and teepees at sunrise; and then idyllic harmony, enterprise, and temple offerings. But in The Consummation, a garish imperial city of white and gold features a red-cloaked emperor’s triumphal procession and colossal statue of Minerva surveying the luxury with alarm. Nature is not just tamed but obliterated. Next come slaughter and bloodshed, alien warships and pelt-clad invaders, torching the white marble city, raping and killing its residents, apparently lulled into torpor by wealth. Finally, the melancholy moonlit column in Desolation, overgrown by vines, stands alone. Said Cole: “Ages may have passed since the scene of glory, though the decline of nations is generally more rapid than those on the rise.”

While many antebellum Americans—scholars, artists, and statesmen—used the lessons of the antique past to moralize about the present and future, few painters did so more than Cole. Ancient Greek and Roman classics were used to deduce right and wrong for the individual and the state, providing sources of authority equaled only by the Bible. Artists and archaeologists created illustrated books, displayed in libraries alongside plaster copies of classical statuary, so the wider public could know and grow familiar with ancient icons.

With a distinctly romantic cast, 19th-century travelers like Cole on the Grand Tour contemplated the passage of time and decay that all humankind must face. Wandering through old ruins, they reflected on the fate of human and all manmade things—including empires—to perish. The Course of Empire is a warning that everything passes. Even great Rome with its wealth, power, and self-confidence could not avoid decay and extinction.

As well as a cautionary tale of excess and hubris, The Course of Empire was readily understood to be a republican indictment of Andrew Jackson, whom Cole regarded as a modern-day Caesar. Cole worried that “this noble country of ours will be subject to all the horrors of civil war, our republican institutions, theoretically so beautiful but relying too much upon the virtue and intelligence of the people, will be broken into pieces.” Cole feared what he called “Jacobin” misrule and the rise of a Bonaparte. For Cole, the popular war hero Jackson foreshadowed the corrupt imperial state, military despotism, concentration of power, and decay. Cole wrote in 1844, “We see that nations have sprung from obscurity, risen to glory, and decayed. Their rise has been marked by virtue; their decadence by vice, vanity, and licentiousness. Let us beware.”

The eminent Smithsonian curator William H. Truettner once observed that each succeeding American generation reinvents Cole for reasons of its own. “THOMAS COLE’S JOURNEY” co-curator Kornhauser gives Cole an eco-spin in her catalogue essay and installation. In an era of art activism, she portrays Cole as an avatar of anti-industrialism and green politics. This line of thought attempts to offset Cole’s romantic sentimentality, finished academic style, reactionary nationalism, and Christian piety. But it diverts consideration of the show’s title premise: that Cole is not an American provincial but courier of Atlantic culture. It reflects pressure on museum curators to interpret all arts and letters through the lens of contemporary politics.

Opening with two famous pieces, a lithograph of King Ned of the Luddites and Coakandale at Night, an English village lit fiery orange by a iron foundry, the exhibition repeatedly laments the irretrievable loss of American wilderness and vanishing natural beauty. The labels provide a drumbeat of eco-criticism. Cole’s “dark view,” they announce, is “prompted by the destruction of the wilderness” and an “irretrievably lost arcadia.” Cole “presents a manifesto urging the preservation of the sublime,” since he is “faced with the rapid destruction of pure nature.” A rustic yeoman surveying a radiant landscape beyond turns into “a man with an ax surrounded by tree stumps, a symbol of a destroyer of nature.”

Cole’s panoramic The Ox-Bow of the Connecticut River from Mount Holyoke, painted at the same time as The Course of Empire, is absent otherworldliness or ethereal glow. Contrasting the wild and the civilized, it views a peaceful, pastoral valley juxtaposed with a wild forest and splintered tree after a thunderstorm. Cattle and sheep graze. Smoke billows from comfortable farmhouses. Barges ply the river. In muted yellows and greens, crops grow in well-tended fields. The sun is shining after a tempest. This bucolic scene is recast into an anxious premonition, a scene of deforestation and human intrusion. Sheep pastures are presented as clear cuts. The Ox-Bow is a cry of ecological despair.

No doubt the “machine in the garden” perplexed Cole and other 19th-century naturalists. The idealization of simplicity and reproving vision of luxury infuses Cole’s oeuvre. “Nature is still predominant, and there are those who regret that with the improvements of cultivation the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away,” he wrote. But he sought human reverence and awe in front of its sublime beauty that warrants worship and careful stewardship. Through nature, he said, the “mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things.” America’s beauty is a gift of God.

Cole’s influence on later American landscape painting was profound. The exhibition reminds us that he raised it into a new and favored genre. The low-ceilinged, cramped installation does not always show off the large-scale masterworks as it might. (The Met’s American Wing lacks good special exhibition space.) On the other hand, visitors do have an unequaled opportunity to get a close-up look at the astonishingly detailed The Course of Empire. The chance for this intimate, eye-level view is enough to make the show a worthwhile destination.

Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits, painted in memory of Cole a year after his unexpected and early death from pneumonia, is a dual portrait of the artist with the writer William Cullen Bryant, back temporarily in Manhattan. The New York Public Library sold it in 2005 for a reported $35 million to the Walton family museum in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Durand’s remarkable 1853 Progress (The Advance of Civilization) from a private collection completes the show. Filling an idyllic American landscape with railroads, burgeoning towns, and smokestacks, the younger Durand openly admires the commercial republic. Durand celebrates the Faustian spirit that Cole resisted and feared, and that Durand’s generation called Manifest Destiny.

Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States Since 1945 and editor of The Eighties: A Reader. He was a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome in 2015.

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