Picturesque and Sublime
The Thomas Cole Historic Site celebrates the 200th anniversary of the artist’s arrival in America
Like two repoussoir trees—one gnarled and majestic, the other vernal and green—that frame many early landscapes, two ideas: one tried and true, the other fresh, bookend Picturesque and Sublime:thomas Cole’s Trans-atlantic Inheritance, the new exhibition opening at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York, on the site of the artist’s restored home and studio.
Focusing on Cole’s return to Great Britain—he had emigrated from the textile mill city of Bolton with his family in 1818—and his subsequent studies and travels in Italy from 1829 to 1832, the exhibition argues the artist’s real appreciation and love of the American wilderness and his stance against unbridled development really takes shape in Europe, where he bore witness, as an adult, to the impact of advanced industrialization and apprehended the cyclical nature of history that had ground down even the mightiest of empires: Rome. Europe refines the philosophical refrain of Cole’s painting: while nature truly is sublime,thomas Cole’s art says, the works of man only seem so.
The beautiful and the sublime—with the crucial mediating concept of the picturesque—is the old idea, one that originates with the Roman philosopher Longinus and was resurrected and refined
by the British political scientist and aesthetician Edmund Burke in the 1790s. Beauty here is order, balance and light, inspiring joy and a sense of union and communion.the French painter Claude Lorrain, when Cole saw his works in Europe, epitomized the beautiful.the sublime, by contrast, is vastness, darkness, storms, impenetrability, mystery, inspiring fear and awe. J. M.w.turner—whom Cole would meet in England—would have been an arbiter of the sublime in landscape. In between, the picturesque, rugged but not inaccessible, vast but not vertiginous, would have been exemplified for Cole in the works of the 17th-century
Italian painter Salvator Rosa. Of course, these categories are fluid, but they rise from the psychological notion that fear is the strongest emotion, and that the fear of death is the strongest fear.
The Atlantic World is the new idea, a concept that removes the sense of isolation from Euro-american historiography post-columbus and links currents of thought to the great movements of people between Europe, the Americas, the Caribbean and Africa that begin in the 15th century. By dint of this cross-pollination of ideas, the exhibition situates Thomas Cole in his times, locating key sources of his inspiration. It also repudiates the tired idea of American culture as a self-made, unalloyed invention of the American soil and character.
Through seeing the works of masters such as Lorrain,turner and Rosa, through seeing the ruins of Roman aqueducts and temples, and—importantly—through seeing, via the prints on paper that circulated throughout the Atlantic World, Cole developed the point of view that would underpin his artistic practice: that America was a new kind of Eden, an unspoiled wilderness rather than the well-ordered garden in Genesis, an Eden rapidly being despoiled by rampant industrialization and an unthinking myth of progress.their subjects ranged from biblical and mythical stories, prints and natural wonders, to the burgeoning communities and aspects of human labor and capitalism found in his friend and rival William Guy Wall’s Hudson River Portfolio.
Cole working through the landscape artists of the past in his monumental quintet (now on view at the Met and always on view at the Newyorkhistorical Society) The Course of
Empire, is an ingenious part of the thesis of the exhibition.the five paintings, working from The Savage State through empire’s rise and decline and back to nature’s reclamation in Desolation, the five works might be subtitled
The Course of Landscape Painting, where artistic ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, each painting expressing and transcending all that Cole had learned from his progenitors.
The sublime, as Cole achieved it, becomes our beautiful. In a Catskill Mountain House;the Four Elements, a fantasy of earth, air, fire and water threaten to consume the famed tourist hotel in the Catskills.the Mountain
House was a fashionable place Cole’s imagery may well have helped inspire, a place he came to regard as frivolous, filled with people who were heedless of the environmental disaster he saw playing out. It’s an almost comical wish fulfillment dream and it’s utterly beautiful. Every mill must ultimately have been a far-off note from the last trumpet to Cole; every dam that appeared must have seemed like a laceration—even if it was only in a print—no matter how quaint, benign and picturesque the scene seemed. Is the future he foresaw the future we face? Cole may be more modern than we think; his art suggests that we have yet to catch up to his vision.
John Robert Cozens (1752-1797), Oak, from ‘Studies of Trees’, 1789. Soft-ground etching and aquatint on paper, 147/16 x 21¼ in. Yale Center for British Art, B1985.13.6.
Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Button Wood Tree, 1823. Ink on paper, 13½ x 167/8 in. Albany Institute of History and Art, 1958.28.36.
Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Catskill Mountain House; The Four Elements, 1843-44. Oil on canvas, 28½ x 36½ in. Private Collection.
Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Italian Scene Composition, 1833. Oil on canvas, 37½ x 54½ in. New-york Historical Society, 1858.19.
Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Niagara, ca. 1829. Sepia wash over pencil with white heightening, 103/8 x 75/8 in. Albany Institute of History and Art, 1958.28.12.