Voice For the Wilder­ness

Thomas Cole’s Jour­ney: at­lantic Cross­ings at Newyork’s Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art and Lon­don’s Na­tional Gallery

American Fine Art Magazine - - In This Issue - By James D. Balestri­eri

Thomas Cole’s Jour­ney: at­lantic Cross­ings at Newyork’s Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art and Lon­don’s Na­tional Gallery

Ispent my last birth­day at Thomas Cole’s house and stu­dio in Catskill, New York.the house, dou­bling as it did as his show­room—gal­leries as we know them did not ex­ist in the United States much be­fore the Civil War, and artists’ as­so­ci­a­tions such as the Na­tional Academy of De­sign (which Cole had helped to found) only held an­nual ex­hi­bi­tions—was an ar­chi­tec­tural marvel in its hum­ble way.the stu­dios—one in the house, one a sep­a­rate build­ing de­signed with win­dows to catch soft north­ern light— were filled with repli­cas of clas­si­cal casts, minia­ture horses and fig­ures, col­lec­tions of seashells and rocks, pig­ments, and a giant color wheel of Cole’s own de­vis­ing. His po­ems were there, hymns to na­ture mostly, and his mu­si­cal in­stru­ments—cole of­ten played the recorder as he ram­bled through the moun­tain­side forests in search of sub­jects to draw and paint.then there were his let­ters on art, not only on the how of art, but on the why, and why art was cru­cial to the Amer­i­can project, and then there was his Es­say on Amer­i­can Scenery, an in­spired de­fense of the Amer­i­can wilder­ness as a sub­ject for the painter that quickly be­comes some­thing else en­tirely, a man­i­festo against the ex­cesses of in­dus­tri­al­ism, a plea for re­straint and preser­va­tion, and a cau­tion against un­bri­dled ex­ploita­tion of the nat­u­ral world as timely to­day as it was novel then. Lis­ten to Cole:“and to this cul­ti­vated state our western world is fast ap­proach­ing; but na­ture is still pre­dom­i­nant, and there are those who re­gret that with the im­prove­ments of cul­ti­va­tion the sub­lim­ity of the wilder­ness should pass away: for those scenes of soli­tude from which the hand of na­ture has never been lifted, af­fect the mind with a more deep toned emo­tion than aught which the hand of man has touched.amid them the con­se­quent as­so­ci­a­tions are of God the cre­ator—they are his un­de­filed works, and the mind is cast into the con­tem­pla­tion of eter­nal things.”

I stood where Cole of­ten stood on his cov­ered porch, and looked out to­ward the Catskill Moun­tains, still beau­ti­ful in their shades of deep green and misted laven­ders. From this spot, Cole watched as sailboats be­came steam­boats, and as the great forests were felled to make way for farms and for the rail­road and to pro­vide lum­ber to build fac­to­ries and fuel to stoke their fires. Two things came to mind. One was that Cole, had he been stand­ing next to me, would have been amazed that any­thing of the world he knew had sur­vived (in no small mea­sure due to his vi­sion of places set aside and apart from de­vel­op­ment). But he would surely have ab­horred the rest of it— the cars and roads and ugly util­i­tar­ian ar­chi­tec­ture, the man­i­cured fields and gar­dens, the wires bi­sect­ing the sky over­head. If I had told him that the Hud­son River was pol­luted, that the trout streams of the Catskills had been in­vaded by car­pets of rock snot but that we were work­ing to re­store these wa­ters, he would have been ap­palled that we had ru­ined it in the first place. And Cole would have looked to reli­gious metaphors and planned new

can­vases in re­sponse to the no­tion of global warm­ing.

My sec­ond thought was that if

Cole had been a Euro­pean rather than an Amer­i­can artist, he would be as revered as Goethe or Turner. Schools and art in­sti­tutes and pub­lic parks and spa­ces would be named for him. But we gen­er­ally name these af­ter politi­cians and cap­tains of in­dus­try—pur­vey­ors of power and money who de­velop a con­science late in life or need a shot of pos­i­tive Pr—rather than af­ter artists, writ­ers and other vi­sion­ar­ies who pur­sue the paths of dreams and beauty early on. Hap­pily, this is chang­ing, but it is a change long past due.

Thomas Cole’s At­lantic Cross­ings, open­ing at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art and mov­ing to Lon­don’s

Na­tional Gallery is a rev­e­la­tion, a nec­es­sary cor­rec­tive that re­casts this im­por­tant Amer­i­can artist as a global cul­ture hero.

Cole was born in 1801 in Boltonle-moors in Lan­cashire, Eng­land (keep Bolton in mind as we go). Bolton bur­geoned with tex­tile mills.the air was foul, the wa­ter filthy.the al­ley­ways where the mill­work­ers lived, if you could call it liv­ing, were densely crowded.the fires of the mills burned round the clock. Bolton typ­i­fies the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion at its ear­li­est and worst.

When he was 11, Cole and his fam­ily bore wit­ness a vi­o­lent re­ac­tion to con­di­tions in Bolton. Led by Ned Ludd, these “Lud­dites,” who were hand weavers, took to the streets against the mech­a­nized looms that ren­dered them ob­so­lete.the Lud­dites’ vi­o­lence was met by even greater vi­o­lence.these scenes, played out against the in­fer­nal mills, surely im­pressed them­selves on Cole’s mind.

Af­ter ap­pren­tic­ing him­self to an en­graver in Liverpool, Cole ac­com­pa­nied his fam­ily to Philadel­phia in 1818.

Some­thing in his en­vi­rons, in what he would come to call Amer­i­can scenery, caused Cole to take up the brush, wa­ter­col­ors first, then oils.when his fam­ily moved to Pitts­burgh and back to Philadel­phia in 1823 and 1824, Cole filled sketch­books with draw­ings, prin­ci­pally of trees, ren­der­ing them in an­thro­po­mor­phic shapes that pro­foundly shaped not only his art, but Amer­i­can vis­ual cul­ture.

You can see the in­flu­ence of Cole’s trees in artists as var­ied as Blake­lock and Burch­field, Dixon and Dis­ney.

In 1825, Cole moved to New York City, a thriv­ing mer­can­tile me­trop­o­lis con­nected to the en­tire world. Later that year, Cole made his first jour­ney up the Hud­son to paint.when one of the paint­ings from this trip was pur­chased by John Trum­bull—painter of Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence and other mon­u­men­tal scenes of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, and now pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Academy of the Fine Arts—and Trum­bull anointed Cole as the painter who would in­ter­pret the Amer­i­can land­scape as it was meant to be seen in art, the young artist was on his way.

Just four years later, in 1829, Cole, at the urg­ing of fel­low artists like Wash­ing­ton All­ston, sailed back to Europe to study and to try to build on his early suc­cess.

Cole’s meet­ings with J.m.w.turner and other im­por­tant Bri­tish painters in their stu­dios as well as his trips to mu­se­ums to take in col­lec­tions of Old Masters—claude Lor­rain in par­tic­u­lar—were for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ences. The dream­scapes of clas­si­cal port cities from his­tory and myth that Turner and Lor­rain fa­vored would pro­vide Cole with in­spi­ra­tion for some of his most am­bi­tious work. For­mal classes in fig­ure draw­ing he took in Florence—cole proved to be a quick study in fig­u­ra­tive work—rounded out his ed­u­ca­tion. One

thing he did not do—some­thing that was ex­pected of all young artists on the Grand Tour—was to copy mas­ter­pieces. In­stead, Cole learned to make oil sketches of ru­ins and land­scapes in plein air, a skill that would serve him ex­tremely well through­out his ca­reer. Ex­tant sketches, painted to sug­gest color schemes and the shapes and dis­po­si­tion of el­e­ments in the pic­ture plane that he would later ex­pand upon in the stu­dio, demon­strate Cole’s pas­sion and the power of his ideas.

Cole re­turned to Newyork at the end of 1832 and set­tled in Catskill,

New York, the fol­low­ing year. He im­me­di­ately em­barked on what would be his great­est work, the cen­ter­piece of the Met ex­hi­bi­tion, The Course of Em­pire, five large can­vases de­pict­ing the rise of a sin­gle im­pe­rial cap­i­tal city from The Sav­age State, through The Ar­ca­dian, or Pas­toral State, to its un­wit­tingly deca­dent pin­na­cle at The Con­sum­ma­tion of Em­pire, and then doc­u­ment­ing the fall in can­vases de­pict­ing De­struc­tion and a re­turn to un­peo­pled na­ture in the ru­ins of Deso­la­tion.

The no­tion of rise and fall was very much on the minds of a gen­er­a­tion that had seen its share of rev­o­lu­tions and up­ris­ings. It seemed a sign that Ed­ward Gib­bon’s mon­u­men­tal work The Rise and Fall of the Ro­man Em­pire should have been pub­lished in 1776, the very year that the Amer­i­can Colonies broke with Bri­tain.turner him­self had pro­duced dip­ty­chs—the rise and fall of Carthage, for ex­am­ple.

What Cole saw in the piti­less, whole­sale de­struc­tion of the nat­u­ral world in his beloved Catskills seemed to presage and en­sure a reck­on­ing.

In a dia­lec­tic that would have done Hegel proud, the seeds of the down­fall of the Amer­i­can project spring from the am­bi­tion and in­dus­tri­ous­ness that were mak­ing the young na­tion grow ever more pow­er­ful.to Cole, lev­el­ing the great forests in­dis­crim­i­nately was a sin against a divine dis­pen­sa­tion— the un­spoiled wilder­ness that made Amer­ica a new Eden. Hu­mankind, in Cole’s vi­sion, is it­self the ser­pent in this gar­den; the de­sire for gold in the New World dis­places the de­sire for knowl­edge in Ge­n­e­sis.the

tree of knowl­edge trans­forms and mul­ti­plies, be­com­ing the Amer­i­can for­est. Com­posed of an­thro­po­mor­phic trees, which Cole thought of as “like men, dif­fer­ing widely in char­ac­ter,” Cole’s im­agery sug­gests hu­man be­ings cut­ting down other hu­man be­ings; the war to tame na­ture is a war against hu­mankind’s own bet­ter na­ture.think of the giant tree­like Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, as­sault­ing Isen­gard to stop the clearcut­ting of their brethren, whose limbs feed the evil wizard Saru­man’s fur­naces of war, and you will have some idea of just how far ahead of his time Cole’s art and out­look truly is. As art, the five paint­ings in Cole’s

The Course of Em­pire rank—or ought to—with William Blake’s fever dreams of hu­man fal­li­bil­ity, Goya’s med­i­ta­tions on war, and Pi­casso’s Guer­nica.the can­vases cover an epoch: hun­dreds of years, per­haps, but im­por­tant el­e­ments, such as the peak at cen­ter right, let us know that these are views of the same spot over time. And that, in the end, is what these paint­ings are about: time. In­no­cence to ex­pe­ri­ence. Birth to death. Growth to de­cay. Dawn to dusk. In­deed, even as Cole shows us an em­pire, it all hap­pens in a day. Dawn breaks on The Sav­age State; the moon rises over Deso­la­tion. What is to us the la­bor of life­times is less than a sin­gle day in the eye of God and in the life of the Earth.

Mo­tifs move back and forth through the paint­ings.the pose of the hunter in The Sav­age State mir­rors the pose of the head­less statue of a glad­i­a­tor in De­struc­tion.the storm in The Sav­age

State, a nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non, finds its ana­log in the swirling smoke of the man-made fires in De­struc­tion. The tri­umphal pro­ces­sion over the bridge in The Con­sum­ma­tion of Em­pire de­volves to a chaotic, vi­o­lent flight in De­struc­tion. This same bridge is all but gone, noth­ing more than a tree and vine cov­ered arch, in the fi­nal paint­ing, Deso­la­tion.

An­other of Cole’s mas­ter­pieces,

View from Mount Holyoke, Northamp­ton, Mas­sachusetts, af­ter a Thun­der­storm—the Oxbow, painted as a break from, and an an­ti­dote to, The Course of Em­pire, con­tains many of the same op­po­si­tions in a sin­gle work. Wilder­ness and cul­ti­va­tion vie for mas­tery.the sav­age com­petes with the pas­toral. Cole him­self peeks out at lower cen­ter, look­ing at us as the great, weird bend in the river in­scribes a colos­sal ques­tion mark.what will we do? The paint­ing, like na­ture it­self, mutely asks.

Given a choice be­tween Ed­mund Burke’s “sub­lime” and “beau­ti­ful,” Cole came down firmly on the side of the sub­lime, on the side of the grandeur and mys­tery of na­ture, on the side of the Ents and the beasts of the field.

On my birth­day, af­ter leav­ing the Thomas Cole House, my fam­ily took me to Kaater­skill Falls, a land­mark of the Hud­son River School and site of one of Cole’s suc­cess­ful early works.tourists then and now still marvel as the falls make their two ver­ti­cal drops. Had he seen the num­ber of hik­ers trekking up the treach­er­ous path that day, he might have de­spaired. Or it might have given him re­newed faith in our abil­ity to see and trea­sure na­ture’s splen­dor.

Let me leave you with this.

An­other fa­mous Amer­i­can artist— Thomas Mo­ran—was born in Bolton, Eng­land. Flee­ing mech­a­niza­tion, he came to Amer­ica with his fam­ily, to Philadel­phia, in fact; and made his way into Amer­i­can art his­tory. Mo­ran— who, it must be said, revered Turner even more than Cole did—trav­eled through the Amer­i­can West with the Hay­den Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey in 1871, doc­u­ment­ing the Yel­low­stone re­gion in wa­ter­col­ors that cap­ti­vated the na­tion.a year later, Congress named Yel­low­stone the first of our first na­tional parks.

Bolton sits in a val­ley near the West Pen­nine Moors, a des­ti­na­tion for lovers of the out­doors.there ought to be a small mon­u­ment com­mem­o­rat­ing the two Thomases—cole and Mo­ran— who em­barked on sim­i­lar jour­neys from one of the dark hearts of the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion.

Thomas Cole (1801-1848), The Course of Em­pire: De­struc­tion, 1836. Oil on can­vas, 39¼ x 63½ in. New-york His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, Gift of The New-york Gallery of the Fine Arts (1858.4). Dig­i­tal im­age cre­ated by Op­pen­heimer Edi­tions.

Thomas Cole (1801-1848), View on the Catskill—early Au­tumn, 1836-37. Oil on can­vas, 54½ x 785⁄8 in. The Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art, New York, Gift in mem­ory of Jonathan Sturges by his chil­dren, 1895 (95.13.3). Im­age © The Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art.

Thomas Cole (1801-1848), View from Mount Holyoke, Northamp­ton, Mas­sachusetts, af­ter a Thun­der­storm—the Oxbow, 1836. Oil on can­vas, 51½ x 76 in. The Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Rus­sell Sage, 1908 (08.228). Im­age © The Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art.

Thomas Cole (1801-1848), The Course of the Em­pire: The Con­sum­ma­tion of Em­pire, 1835-36.

Oil on can­vas,

51¼ x 76 in. New-york His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety,

Gift of The Newyork Gallery of the Fine Arts (1858.3). Dig­i­tal im­age cre­ated by Op­pen­heimer Edi­tions.

Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Scene from “The Last of the Mo­hi­cans,” Cora Kneel­ing at the Feet of Ta­me­nund, 1827. Oil on can­vas, 253⁄8 x 351⁄8 in. Wadsworth Atheneum Mu­seum of Art, Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut, Be­quest of Al­fred Smith (1868.3). Photo: Allen Phillips/wadsworth Atheneum.

Fred­eric E. Church (1826-1900), Above the Clouds at Sun­rise, 1849. Oil on can­vas, 27¼ x 40¼ in. Pri­vate col­lec­tion.

Thomas Cole (1801-1848), From Na­ture, 1823. Ink on pa­per, 95⁄8 x 7¼ in. Al­bany In­sti­tute of His­tory & Art, Gift of Edith Cole (Mrs. Howard) Sil­ber­stein (1965.68.1). Pho­tog­ra­phy pro­vided by the Al­bany In­sti­tute of His­tory & Art.

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