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Painting Cole Green

By: Brian Allen
April 4, 2018

homas Cole (1801-1848) was the father of the Hudson River School, the pivotal 19th-century American art movement. His work and character provided philosophical touchstones as American artists depicted the country's seemingly endless and pristine land and sea. His international veneer inspired young artists to stretch their ambitions, outlooks, and abilities. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery in London have partnered to present "Thomas Cole's Journey: Atlantic Crossings" (January 3-May 13, 2018). This joint venture provides American and British audiences with an overdue reappraisal of an American artist with a decidedly international character.

“Thomas Cole’s Journey” explores "how Cole's first-hand knowledge of the British Industrial Revolution and his study of the Roman Empire positioned him to create works that offer a distinctive, even dissident, response to the economic and political rise of the United States, the ecological and economic changes then underway, and the challenges and dangers facing the young country." It examines Cole's trips to Europe in 1829 and 1841 in which he met Joseph Mallord William Turner, John Constable, and other giants of British contemporary art, studied in Florence, and visited southern Italy.

The show gathers Cole's brilliant five-picture “Course of Empire” series, arguably American art's first blockbuster. Painted between 1834 and 1836, the series charts a sweeping landscape's evolution from a savage state occupied by hunters and gatherers to a farmed, pastoral region, an imperial metropolis, an urban pyre in the midst of a merciless sack, and, finally, ruins at sunset. The show includes the View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow) from 1836, probably the best known American landscape. There's a nice selection of Cole's early work, including his Garden of Eden (1828), a tour de force of botany study; his great Mohican paintings; and his Italian pictures from the early 1840s. The National Gallery lent Claude Lorrain's great Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) and Turner's Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829). Yale lent Constable's Hadleigh Castle (1829), and the Tate contributed his Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832). All are big, dramatic pictures Cole saw when visiting London. These paintings alone make for an important show well worth a long visit.

This search for Cole's European inspirations can lead us astray. The catalogue essay by Timothy Barringer tells us Cole was christened as a month old baby "in the Duke's Alley Independent Chapel, a Calvinist congregation open to all Dissenters, who rejected the authority and teachings of the established Church of England." He asserts that Cole absorbed "hellfire and brimstone sermons" steeped in millenarianism. As a child, Cole’s Bolton home was the scene of Ned Ludd's rebellion against forms of automation in textile production. The curators claims that these associations formed Cole’s core economic, social, and political beliefs. They untethered him from undue faith in technology and attuned him both to the rise and collapse of empires and to the value of nature left pristine.

This might be wishful thinking. We don't know what sermons he heard, much less absorbed. The Luddite rebellion, which was really a labor movement having little to do with land use and pollution, fizzled when Cole was a young teenager. No one knows what he thought or knew about it. His 1853 biography by Louis Legrand Noble says nothing about his religious upbringing or thoughts on labor unrest. At age 9, Cole was sent to a boarding school so harsh it would have made Jane Eyre's Gateshead look like a spa. If anything, Cole was busy absorbing this and not with millenarianism or modern wool carding. By 1842, he was rechristened as an Episcopalian and became a loyal parishioner of St. Luke's Church in Catskill, with his biographer Noble as his minister. Whatever hold his Dissenter childhood had on him seems to have dissipated entirely. Yes, it’s true that Alexander Humboldt's early ecology books were available to Cole, but we can't impute any of their findings to him because there's no evidence he read them.

I was skeptical at other points. A short, three-minute video near The Oxbow starts well. It examines the picture’s underpainting, which shows a preliminary design for the architecture in The Consummation of Empire. When interpreted well, underpainting can unmask secrets using technological wizardry, but in this case it's used to advance an ideological link between the two pictures that likely doesn’t exist. The Oxbow, the curators say, is a screed on the destruction of virgin land. Its cultivated acres embrace the same themes of "ruin and renewal on a cosmic scale" worrying Cole in Consummation, in part because Consummation sketches appear under The Oxbow's paint. Why doesn't this simply show a thrifty artist recycling his materials?

There's plenty of effort to present Cole as a proto-environmentalist à la Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, or John Muir, with a touch of today's Resistance politics. No one will die because the curators imported today’s politics into the world of a long dead artist, but it leads to misconstruing Cole’s intent. His record has to be understood in context. Cole certainly complained a lot about development and wrote that the railroad companies in upstate New York, where he lived from the 1830s until his death, "cut down the Forest with a wantoness for which there is no excuse." He even called their owners "copper-hearted barbarians...cutting down all the trees in the beautiful valley on which I have looked so often with a loving eye."

And he was correct. The mid-19th century saw millions of acres of virgin forest fell to development, grazing, fuel, and building materials, affecting every aspect of the natural world in New England and upstate New York. But by this time, Cole's Catskill already hosted America's first grand resort hotel catering to rich tourists. He later married his landlord's niece. Soon, he was a comfortable member of the local establishment. Did his musings on abuse of the land have a touch of "not in my backyard" syndrome or, worse, "I've got mine, no one else can have theirs?" It's hard to tell. What we do know—and see—is that his work in the 1840s is more personal. By then, while he wasn’t a local grandee he certainly was a grandee-in-law and New York's most revered artist. His last great series, “The Voyage of Life” from 1842, is entirely about one man's journey from birth through manhood to old age and salvation. If there is any land use agenda, it’s impossible to see.

Curator Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser’s essay tells us that "Cole's Romantic pessimism regarding the state of the nation...took hold as he began to equate the destruction of the wilderness with [President Andrew] Jackson's expansionist policies." He might have expressed these beliefs in “The Course of Empire.” Jackson was many things, but an overweening, imperialist crypto king he wasn't. Some of his opponents slandered him as a king, but this was just one of many insults. Jackson was called everything from king to despot to crook to murderer to sex addict. We know he was hostile to centralized state power, loathed big city financiers, catered to populists and the “common man,” hated the Indians, hated abolitionists, and opposed federal spending to spur business development. By requiring loans for the purchase of western plots to be paid in gold in an attempt to curb land speculation, he helped cause the terrible 1837 depression. But by the time the economy collapsed, Cole had already finished "The Course of Empir."

The rise and fall of empires engaged Cole, as it did many other intellectuals. In the context of the mid-1830s, however, his interest was likely more generic than specifically American. Cole had just returned from Britain, an empire much further advanced, and Italy, where hubris led to Nemesis’ frequent visits. Isn't it more likely the pictures were about them? The curators say that Cole "was committed to a conservative, Federalist political outlook, which upheld the gentlemanly values of the traditional landholding class, which was suspicious of commerce and speculation." The Federalists had disappeared a generation earlier. When they actually existed, they’d disliked only commerce and speculation from which they weren't benefitting. It wasn’t until the Mexican-American War that American imperialism truly became an issue of profound concern and loud debate. Considering Cole died during this war and had completed “The Course of Empire” years earlier, it was unlikely American empire was the main subject of his masterpiece. 

Cole's politics are mostly unknown. He lived in America for fifteen years before becoming a citizen. His voluminous writings don’t reveal a very politically-oriented man. He was kind and sensitive and eschewed stridency in all forms—a mild mannered Whig, if anything. “Thomas Cole’s Journey” includes Asher Durand's Kindred Spirits (1849), his tribute to Cole's friendship with his eulogist, William Cullen Bryant. Bryant's famous eulogy is fulsome, but says nothing about Cole as an ecological activist. The closest Bryant comes is noting that Cole didn't care for city life. Cole's 1836 "Essay on American Scenery" is a beautifully written and heartfelt expression of his love of untouched wilderness, but it isn’t a call to arms. He thinks his American Eden is "desecrated by what is called improvement," calls this observation "a regret rather than a complaint," and concedes "it may lead to refinement in the end," acknowledging ugly bumps in the road along the way. That's about as political as he gets.

A show about environmentalism and the early Hudson River School would be revealing. If Cole's art was indeed "a manifesto to preserve unspoiled wilderness," I'd like to know more about the intellectual underpinnings of the movement, who among scientists and writers were involved, and how politicians and the public responded. Calling an artist's work a "manifesto" is only a start, and in Cole's case his writing sounds sincere and well-intentioned, but there's no bite to the bark. “Thomas Cole’s Journey” includes an oil sketch for one of Cole's last pictures, Home in the Woods (1847). The curators tell us that "Cole creates a narrative of the lives of pioneer families who use axes, rifles, and fishing poles...carving out a harmonious relationship with nature." Cole owned a working farm. A successful farm is always modernizing. If this truly was his ideal, his farm would have been out of business in a New York minute.

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow) 1836