Thomas Cole painted landscapes as he wished they were

June 05, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

In 1836, artist Thomas Cole wrote to patron Luman Reed, "The copper-hearted barbarians are cutting all the trees down in the beautiful valley on which I have looked so often with a loving eye."

While this lament sounds as though it comes from a liberal champion of the environment, Cole was actually quite the conservative in his time, according to the organizers of the fine exhibit "Thomas Cole: Landscape into History" at Washington's National Museum of American Art.

Cole, the pre-eminent American landscape painter of the second quarter of the 19th century, was active during the period of Jacksonian democracy, the coming of the railroads and the dawning of the industrial age.

An opponent of all such "progress," he aligned himself with the old aristocracy, the agrarian landowners of the type who had founded the republic and were disturbed by the forces of the new age. Cole's art was to a great degree a product of that thinking, as this exhibit makes clear.

The exhibit is tailored to a thesis that ties together two disparate strains in the work of this seminal American landscape painter.

Cole was born in England in 1801 and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1818. Largely self-taught as an artist, he lived in various places including Pittsburgh and Philadelphia before moving to New York in 1825. There he was soon discovered by John Trumbull, the influential president of the American Academy of Fine Arts, who introduced him to potential patrons. From then until his death in 1848 Cole was a nationally known figure who often worked on commissions for such patrons as Daniel Wadsworth and Baltimore's Robert Gilmor Jr.

Until now, the artist's work has been separated by art historians into two distinct categories: the "real" and the "ideal."

In the former category were paintings of actual places, from the artist's beloved Catskill Mountains to scenes painted on his trips to Europe in the 1830s and 1840s. Into this category fall such well-known paintings as "The Falls of the Kaaterskill" (1826) and "View on the Catskill, Early Autumn" (1837), as well as European views such as "Mount Aetna from Taormina" (1843).

Into the ideal category went such allegorical works as his series "The Course of Empire" (1834-1836) and "The Voyage of Life" (1842), the religious cycle "The Cross and the World" (unfinished at his death), and similar paintings, such as "The Architect's Dream" (1840).

The ideal paintings are moralizing. The five paintings of "The Course of Empire" trace what Cole saw as the cycle of rise and decline. As civilization proceeded from "The Savage State" (the title of the first painting) through "The Pastoral or Arcadian State" to "The Consummation of Empire," in which a conquering hero returns in triumph to an overbuilt classical city, so it must inevitably proceed through the stage of "Destruction" to final "Desolation," in which nature reclaims the ruins of the once-powerful state.

Cole believed it would have been possible to avoid the cycle of rise and fall had development stopped at the Arcadian stage. He thought America had had that chance but was destroyed by the coming of Jacksonian democracy and "utilitarian" progress, such railroads cutting through his favorite Catskill scenes.

"Voyage of Life" and especially "The Cross and the World" reflect Cole's belief that in this doomed course the only salvation possible was a personal religious one. In "The Voyage of Life," an angel guides man through the dangers of life to the promise of a heavenly reward at the end. In "The Cross and the World," two people set out on different paths. The one who chooses "The World" finds temporary pleasures and ultimate ruin, while the one who chooses "The Cross" experiences trials but ultimate salvation.

Such allegories, although popular in Cole's time, fell from favor not long after his death. Subsequent art historians have dismissed them, preferring Cole's "real" landscapes. But the organizers of this exhibit, including catalog editors William H. Treuttner and Alan Wallach, point out that Cole's "real" paintings are scarcely more real than his ideal ones.

In "The Falls of Kaaterskill," for instance, Cole shows no evidence of human presence in the natural scene save one lone American Indian. But in reality, when Cole painted this scene, the place had become a tourist attraction with walkways and railings, which Cole shows in a preliminary drawing but eliminates from his final painting.

And "View on the Catskill, Early Autumn" is as unreal as the Arcadian stage of "The Course of Empire," which it resembles. A year before he painted this lush, unspoiled scene, Cole was complaining to Luman Reed of the "copper-hearted barbarians . . . cutting all the trees down."

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