Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossingsby Joe Bucciero
The Metropolitan Museum of Art | January 30 – May 13, 2018
“All nature here is new to art, no Tivolis, Ternis, Mont Blancs, Plinlimmons, hackneyed and worn by the daily pencils of hundreds; but primeval forests, virgin lakes and waterfalls.” So rhapsodized British-born painter Thomas Cole (1801–1848) on the appeal of the American landscape. Cole, who moved to the United States in 1818 and whose paintings often glorify the seemingly untouched American earth, is renowned as the founder of the Hudson River School and the country’s seminal landscape painter. In her canonical textbook, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century (1969), Barbara Novak identifies Cole as the first American painter to “[transfer] the heroic aims of the history painters to the landscape category, where at last they could take firm root in American soil.” Currently on view at the Met, Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings presents Cole, on one level, as the Ur-American landscapist Novak describes, showcasing some of his most famous works, such as The Oxbow (1836), along with canvases by famous followers like Frederic Edwin Church and Asher Brown Durand. But the show also reorients Cole’s legacy, outlining the global character of his artistic development and painting him as a dynamic figure of wide-ranging relevance. As this exhibition makes clear, Cole’s vision of a “primeval” New World was not a reflection of the landscape he encountered but a constructed response to it, conditioned by rapidly shifting economic and geopolitical forces.
Painted during a short but fertile period at the height of the Industrial Revolution, Cole’s landscapes were in many ways products of the accelerating economy. Burgeoning industry troubled Cole because of its effects not only on nature, but also on his life. Thomas Cole’s Journey opens with visual and textual material from Cole’s boyhood in England, notably a propaganda poster disparaging the Luddites, whose arson attacks on factories he may have witnessed up close. When his father’s business closed, an adolescent Cole got a job in a cotton mill, where he was influenced by the colorful fabrics produced there (displayed in the exhibition via a vivid pattern book) and also, one surmises, alienated by the arduous, low-wage labor. Soon, searching for financial opportunity, the Coles moved to the United States, where Cole began to train as a painter.
In 1825 Cole visited the Hudson Valley, a wellspring for his career creatively and commercially. The landscape Cole encountered there wasn’t quite “primeval,” so he made some adjustments. In his Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830), Cole performs a kind of artistic Luddism. “Niagara,” a wall text explains, was already “a popular destination in 1829, boasting tourist amenities, factories, and mills.” Trying to picture the scene as original settlers might’ve seen it, Cole “eliminated all signs of development…achieving a vision of unspoiled wilderness.” He also mirrored the crushing falls in the calm river beneath, producing a horizontal symmetry and a mass of white mist that reads like a Rorschach blot. Two Native Americans watch from the foreground. Cole paints their orange costumes to match the foliage, pictorially linking them to the pre-colonial landscape. What do they (and we) see in the mist? Cole describes Niagara Falls in his 1836 “Essay on American Scenery”: “In its volume we conceive immensity; in its course, everlasting duration; in its impetuosity, uncontrollable power.” The Falls was a particularly trenchant site for Cole to paint: a place where commerce clashed with natural sublimity, like the deluge hitting the surface of the Niagara River.
While his deep connection to American art and landscape is undeniable, it’s clear that Cole—as Jason Rosenfeld noted in last month’s Brooklyn Rail—was equally beholden to his British origins (formidable paintings by Turner and Constable hang in the exhibition and showcase some stylistic affinities) and trips to Europe. Cole began his ambitious series The Course of Empire (1833–36) after returning to the States from Italy. On view at the Met, this five-part cycle employs architectural and allegorical material drawn from the artist’s European excursion to outline the fall of America, marred under Andrew Jackson’s rule by industrialization and Manifest Destiny. Rosenfeld refers to The Course of Empire as a “cautionary tale,” which it is. But for all its narrative and thematic heft, its apocalyptic penultimate panel, Destruction (1836), suggests Cole working through contemporary problems in real time—the dark smoke summoning factories and the perilously crowded boats, overpopulation. A work of art—a marble statue posed like the Borghese Gladiator—cuts through the landscape, the only thing standing amid fiery wreckage. In the cycle’s final panel, Desolation (1836), another solid white structure—a Corinthian column—stands alone in the foreground; the hordes of citizens and military personnel from the previous two panels have completely disappeared. In The Empire of the Eye (1993), art historian Angela Miller reads The Course of Empire as “an effort to impose form and sequence on the fluctuations of the market.” Indeed, Cole saw Jackson’s expansionist policies as detrimental not only to the country’s landscape but to its moral and economic health. Finished the year before 1837’s depression, Cole’s cycle documents—as the scene turns from local to imperial, from serene to chaotic—contemporary afflictions while questioning art’s ability to control, or simply withstand, them.
Cole’s art—processing global influences, engaging with contemporary problems—proves itself to be influential beyond the legacy of the Hudson River School. Rosenfeld notes, aptly, that Cole prefigures “the still-undervalued Precisionists Demuth and Sheeler.” One could push this lineage further to minimalism and land art: decidedly American movements that arose in reaction to European modernism, turmoil and urbanization in American cities, and the inflating art market. Artists such as Michael Heizer, Donald Judd, and Robert Smithson began to set their minimal work in the American frontier, where art could transcend the commercial and physical boundaries imposed by galleries and museums. The artists aspired, like Cole, to a new type of “immensity,” “everlasting duration,” and “uncontrollable power.” Judd in particular characterized his objects in terms of their “power.” While his use of simple, obdurate forms and new, industrial materials was decidedly modern, his settlement in the west Texas desert also summons the Arcadian impulses of nineteenth-century landscapists. Art historian and curator Rudi Fuchs writes that Judd “studied maps and remembered that the southwest of Texas was still open and unoccupied”—like Cole’s “primeval forests”—before settling in Marfa in 1973.
Cole and Judd both disliked American empire: Judd was something of an anarchist, and Cole, unlike many of his followers, disdained Manifest Destiny. For them, art that engaged the raw landscape was a shield against modern society, the ills of which both artists addressed in their respective bodies of writing. But in their artistic refusals of capitalism and empire, they proffered a vision of sublime wilderness that often cast aside, rather than confronted, the economic and political problems of their times. In doing so, it could be argued that these artists reproduced the imperial narratives they hoped to destroy. Cole’s skill and his broad stylistic influence are clear when viewing Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings; so, too, is his “American” worldview, a self-reliance, even libertarianism, that itself betrays a position of power.
Joe Bucciero is a writer born in Chicago, based in Brooklyn.