Thomas Cole: a Fresh Look at the Father of American Landscape
Thomas Cole (1801–48), pioneer of American landscape painting and founder of the Hudson River School, features in a thoughtful exhibition where he emerges as an internationally connected artist deserving recognition and appreciation on both sides of the Atlantic. After a successful run at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire is on view at London’s National Gallery. At both venues, the curators Tim Barringer and Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser have destabilized the traditional, nationalist image of Cole as a quintessential American artist who painted sublime landscapes for a new nation with a growing sense of its destiny. Instead, Cole emerges as a more complex and conflicted figure: an ambitious, class-conscious immigrant, imbued with European artistic and religious traditions and an admirer of Romantic poets such as Lord Byron. Far from being an apologist for American expansionism and at odds with the prevailing Jacksonian ideology, the artist favoured the preservation of the natural environment.
Cole trained as an engraver before arriving in America with his family at age 17, exactly 200 years ago. While growing up, he had witnessed the environmental devastation in his native Lancashire wrought by industrialization. Largely self-taught, he began painting wilderness landscapes before returning, aged 28, to Europe for two years to study the old masters in Great Britain and Italy.
Cole was among the first to highlight the majestic scale and beauty of North American landscapes, which he framed and allegorized in new ways, while questioning prevailing attitudes towards the exploitation of nature. He also taught the next generation of American landscape painters, including Frederic Edwin Church and Jasper Francis Cropsey. Although Cole pointed the direction that American landscape painting would follow, his admiring students often projected very different values in their works, tending to celebrate nationalism and present a harmonious view of human settlement.
The London exhibition focuses on the period 1832–37, that followed Cole’s first and formative trip to Europe. More than 35 sketches and paintings by the artist are presented. A prolific artist who died at the relatively young age of 47, Cole created more than 100 works, although the whereabouts of a number of these remain unknown. In addition, some 25 works by British contemporaries, such as J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, create a dialogue with Cole’s paintings and provide context. Cole had met these artists and carefully studied their techniques.
Cole’s most famous painting, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (1836), more commonly known as The Oxbow, has been lent overseas for the first time by the Metropolitan Museum where it is usually prominently displayed. A diagonal divides the canvas with forests, broken branches and a stormy sky on the left, and a distant view of cultivated fields and deforested mountains on the right. The artist, a tiny figure poised in the middle with his easel on a rocky outcropping, gazes directly at his fellow Americans. He seems to ask whether their new country will choose to preserve its natural grandeur or continue with unlimited exploitation. As Barringer points out, the oxbow in the river also forms a large question mark. When it was first exhibited, the work was well received as a glorious panorama, celebrating American scenery and the taming of nature. Few grasped the artist’s broader interrogation.
A similar warning and question, applicable to Europe as well as America, is found in Cole’s ambitious cycle, which serves as the culminating point of the London exhibition. In The Course of Empire (1833–36) Cole depicts the rise and fall of a civilization across five large canvases. The initial painting, The Savage State (c. 1834), shows a primeval forest, inhabited by hunter-gatherers, with a distinctive mountain peak on the right, a feature that reappears in the subsequent paintings. A group of huts may represent tipis, but the most visible figure is a bearded, Caucasian hunter.
The centrepiece and largest painting in the cycle, The Consummation of Empire (1835–36), shows an imaginary imperial capital of classical marble architecture, crowded and completely urbanized. In the foreground a Napoleonic figure in red robes leads a victory procession while mounted on a chariot pulled by an elephant. Plunder, consumption and vulgarity are everywhere in evidence. Inevitably, in Cole’s view, the following two paintings chronicle the collapse of this vainglorious civilization in scenes evoking the sack of Rome and Italy’s classical ruins. Reviewers have pointed out the exhibition’s pertinence for today’s viewers, familiar with both global environmental devastation and conspicuous luxury.
For the London exhibition, the National Gallery of Canada has lent its only work by the artist, Tomb of General Brock, Queenston Heights, Ontario. Painted during Cole’s first stay in England, it was displayed in 1830 at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition (badly, according to Cole, as it was shown in an upper corner where it was difficult to see). The unusual North American backdrop and subject were designed to stand out and to appeal to the British audience who held the martyred hero of the War of 1812 in high esteem. Sunlight shines on the monument, suggesting divine grace, while in the distance the peaceful shores of Lake Ontario celebrate Brock’s ultimate military achievement. The imposing, 40 m high monument was already a tourist attraction in Cole’s time and a powerful statement about the ongoing British presence in North America.
In London, the contemporary resonance of Cole’s work has been underlined by a parallel installation of eight works by Los Angeles-based artist Ed Ruscha. His series based on four locations, also titled Course of Empire (1992, 2003–04), was originally created for the American pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale. In his cycle, Ruscha has painted the same box-like buildings over a decade, showing changes in corporate function and exterior decoration and reflecting the evolution of consumer society. Both artists thus provide a social critique through landscapes of their times. Visitors from all countries should discover a new and compelling impression of Cole in this thought-provoking show.
Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire and Ed Ruscha: Course of Empire are on view at the National Gallery in London until October 7, 2018. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.