Thomas Cole’s Journey:
THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART | JANUARY 30 – MAY 13, 2018
Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836. Oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 76 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1908. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
In 2015 the painter Stephen Hannock and I curated “River Crossings” at Cedar Grove in Catskill, the home of Thomas Cole, and The Olana Partnership in Hudson, the home of Frederic Edwin Church, filling those loci of the evolution of American landscape painting with works by contemporary Hudson River Valley artists: Martin Puryear, Charles LeDray, Letha Wilson, Angie Keefer, Valerie Hegarty, Maya Lin, Kianja Strobert, and Will Cotton, along with some twenty others. Establishing a clear continuity with art of the present, our exhibition aimed to show how, in their maturity, Cole and Church headed out of the city to pursue their modern art, working in an American setting and with an American subject. The present exhibition at the Met attempts to provide a prequel to that seemingly fully defined character of Thomas Cole, to show for the first time how he was impacted by what he saw as a young painter in Europe in his quest to evolve a distinctly American art. Cole acknowledged the traditions of the sublime and the picturesque as it had evolved in the mature art of British Romantic artists such as J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, and then transformed it into his particularly local, radically new, but cautionary visions of nature. The exhibition brilliantly reveals how Cole’s pessimism about human progress was formed through his experience, both of industry in his youth and a swiftly changing American northeast in his adolescence and early career, as well as his travels to London’s grand but conflicted empire and Rome’s seductive yet melancholy ruins. Add to this a keen study of contemporary European art.
It is difficult to overstate how novel the outlook of this exhibition is. Pre-modernist American art history has often been framed in a kind of vacuum of indigenous ideas and locales—from Colonial Art to transcendentalism to the Hudson River School—and remains unfortunately isolated in museums in its own galleries apart from its European contemporaries. But a more expansive view in no way diminishes the creativity and originality of what these artists came up with. Like Stuart Davis with his “colonial cubism”; and the still-undervalued Precisionists Demuth and Sheeler with their own transformations of the clarity of French Purism and the dynamism of Italian Futurism; or even Peter Blume with his particularly American take on surrealism, Thomas Cole—a century earlier—absorbed the brilliance of the art he saw in Europe and recast American art in a way that responded to local scenery as well as to the economic, political, and environmental situation. It is a new way of thinking about the global history of American art, one which serves to elevate the work of British and American artists alike, and productively diminishes the stranglehold that traditions of French art still have on histories of the nineteenth century. It could serve as a model for American museums, who should at last cast aside the archaic and rigid demarcations of curatorial departments and integrate western painting and sculpture from the Americas and Europe to better reflect artistic interaction on multiple continents at the time.
The exhibition opens with smoke, soot, ash, and steam—the environs of gritty, urban, insalubrious, northern England. These were the byways of Thomas Cole’s Lancashire youth. Given a certain aesthetic treatment in images by Turner and Philip James de Loutherbourg, the polluted environs of such industrialized regions are baldly revealed here in oils, watercolors, and prints. The Cole family left burgeoning Chorley in 1817 for Liverpool and departed for Philadelphia in 1818, arriving one day before Independence Day. They spent time in Steubenville, Ohio, and Pittsburgh in the not-yet-rusted belt (they may have felt unsettlingly at home in those factory-dominated cities), but in 1823 Cole took his newly learned skills and residual memories of industrialized England to Philadelphia and then New York City to find his way as a fine artist. Early Cole works access local scenery, contemporary literature such as James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, and the stock elements of European landscape gleaned from artists who trained there and returned to the USA like John Trumbull and Joshua Shaw. Cole was looking at published aquatints of American scenery and drawing from nature, but his early oils were marked by artificial vistas and were modest in size. Seeking broader inspiration, Cole left New York in June 1829 and would go to London for two years. He then spent about sixteen months in Italy, before returning to New York City and then settling in Catskill in 1833.
One great strength of the exhibition lies in showing the art Cole saw in England both old and new. In London he was bowled over by the works of Claude Lorrain and Turner, then in his absolute prime, who is represented here by loans of grand masterpieces from London's Tate Britain and National Gallery such as Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (1812) and Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus—Homer’s Odyssey (1829). Cole followed in Turner’s footsteps to Italy, where he made evocative plein air sketches of ruins and studies for a later concise and panoramic view of Florence. The curators, Tim Barringer and Elizabeth Kornhauser, have cleverly shown these along a wall across from sketches by and prints after Constable—who never left England, but who magically transformed sites such as Stonehenge—showing Cole how the vernacular could be employed as allegory and be afforded a sense of limitless time. Turner’s dependence on myth and historical allegory in a post-Napoleonic age, and Constable’s predilection for contemporary events and political skepticism seen through a naturalistic lens were both instructive for Cole. The latter is represented by temporally grounded but no less ambitious work such as The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (“Whitehall Stairs, June 18th, 1817”) (1832), and his rumination on Britain’s parlous political situation, Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames—Morning after a Stormy Night (1829) from the Yale Center for British Art. The impact of these six-foot pictures is hardly diminished today, and hung low and against sympathetic deep blue walls for close and largely unglazed inspection, they amaze via their technique, scope, drama, and sheer beauty.
This central gallery terminates with the most triumphant set piece of the show, Cole’s magisterial The Course of Empire. This five-part cautionary tale has migrated across the park from the New-York Historical Society and has never been seen to better advantage: at eye-level, unglazed, enveloping the visitor in a one-half octagonal layout, and perfectly lit. Cole’s imagined rise and fall of a great power was inspired by Claude and Turner and architecture in London and Rome, along with his suspicions of Jacksonian America in the 1830s. How does a civilization pursue its own irrelevance and destruction through misguided internal forces and despoliation of nature? Cole saw the signs all too well in 1834–36, and the wealthy and unprepossessing former grocery magnate Luman Reed and his heirs underwrote it. Today, the series is no less relevant for a Brexit-facing England and a Trump-saddled America.
The conclusion of the exhibition is open-ended. There is the Met’s View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow (1836), the greatest American painting before Church’s works, shown here in the context of Cole’s pencil and oil sketches for it, and, significantly, his citizenship papers. In the midst of draining labors on The Course of Empire, the Englishman, having secured his new nationality and imbibed the best of naturalistic art in Europe, painted a picture that somehow, remarkably, unaccountably, and perfectly unified the sublime and the beautiful, the wrath of nature (God) and the misguided path of cultivation (humanity) in one panoramic image. In doing so, he invented a wholly new vernacular art. It is, as the curators write in the superb catalogue, a picture that questions the direction the nation will choose to pursue.
In that vein, and eschewing traditional comprehensiveness and triumphalism, the last gallery does not show what Cole painted in the final decade of his life, but rather traces his fitful legacy. On the positive side there is Church, with some of that superior tactician’s lovely and monumental oil sketches and one show-stopper from a private collection, Above the Clouds at Sunrise (1849), a memorial to Cole. There is an homage to Cole by Asher Brown Durand as well as a repudiation of all of Cole’s skepticism in his Progress (The Advance of Civilization) (1853). The last picture in the show is a work by another British ex-pat: Thomas Charles Farrer’s own view of the environs of the Oxbow. Associated with the short-lived American Pre-Raphaelites, Farrer represented a newly precise approach to landscape, with Cole’s former perch on Mount Holyoke visible at the upper right. Yet the painting lacks Cole’s drama and national critique, and the style represented a dead end for landscape painting. And yet, simply through its choice of site it showed the importance of the Oxbow to the nation’s artistic consciousness. It says, “This is us. This is our land.” It celebrates America’s otherness from Europe. Perhaps that, more than anything, is the legacy of Cole: he helped to make possible the search for distinctiveness and meaning in American scenery—in all its complications—in Church, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O’Keeffe, April Gornik, Stephen Hannock, Keith Mayerson, and on and on. Europe afforded Cole a sense of grandiosity, a feeling for historical time, an awareness of sublimity and failure. But America could be better, Cole thought, could avoid the pitfalls of empire. Swelling with opportunity and newness, it held possibility and promise. Still, the exhibition dares to end with pessimism. The march of purported progress; the wanton destruction of natural habitats with governmental approval; the abuse of privilege; the divisions of capitalism: through the lens of his own recent history Cole predicted all of it. Even better informed as we are, do we have the wherewithal to take heed of his increasingly relevant warnings?
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for the Brooklyn Rail.