Pic­turesque and Sublime

The Thomas Cole His­toric Site cel­e­brates the 200th an­niver­sary of the artist’s ar­rival in Amer­ica

American Fine Art Magazine - - Event Preview: New York, Ny -

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.

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