No single artist has played a more pioneering role in the development of American landscape painting than the early 19th-century artist Thomas Cole. Though he died prematurely at the age of 47, Cole was hugely influential in introducing the genre to a nation-state that had been born only decades earlier and had only begun to develop its artistic traditions.
Cole’s famous 1846 “The Oxbow” (now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) must be one of the best known depictions of the young United States; it represents the Connecticut River Valley immediately after a thunderstorm, with a ravaged tree in the foreground. The Met is dedicating a solo exhibition to Cole.“Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings” (ending May 13) includes 76 works (not all by Cole) and highlights his status as one of the US’s most important landscape painters.
Paradoxically, Cole’s own roots were far from the romantic American vistas that he is so famous for. He was born in 1801 into a working-class family in Bolton, northern England, at the height of the Industrial Revolution. He experienced poverty from a young age, living in a crowded neighborhood beset with poor sanitation and disease. The town of Bolton was dominated at the time by the cotton textile industry, so young Thomas was employed by the mills when he was only a child. In a word, the landscape of his earliest years was one of factories spewing filthy black smoke into the open skies. His family was forced to migrate to the United States when Thomas was 17.
“He went to work in the dark satanic mills as a child in the cotton industry at a point of great political and social agitation. So that poverty and a pretty dismal view of economic reality were his formation,” said Christopher Riopelle, curator of post-1800 paintings at the National Gallery in London, where the Cole exhibition will be shown in June. “America must have seen this extraordinary opening up of possibilities once he got there: all that air, all that space, the landscape still pristine.” America was unquestionably a land of opportunity for the young Englishman(especially because he had arrived with some skills, having previously served as an engraver’s apprentice in Liverpool). He set out to get proper art training, learning from a portrait painter, then enrolling at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
In 1825, fate came knocking. Two men — Colonel John Trumbull and the painter Asher B. Durand — spotted some of Cole’s landscapes in the window of a shop in New York. Not only did they purchase his works, but they also put him in touch with patrons who would ultimately turn Cole into a renowned landscape artist. Patrons such as Daniel Wadsworth in Hartford, Connecticut (founder of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in Hartford) realized that Cole had the potential to develop a landscape painting tradition in America. Wadsworth and other supporters encouraged Cole to go back to his native England and see what was happening in art circles there. The trip was to last nearly four years.
During that time, Cole met J.M.W. Turner (the artist who ultimately inspired him most) and John Constable. He also traveled extensively around continental Europe to see the work of other landscape painters. That voyage proved “a vital turning point,”explained Riopelle, because it led him to start “a dialogue” between American and European painting. “He quickly picked up what Turner and Constable and some of the others were doing, understood that they’d pushed landscape to a sort of higher level of meaning. And right away, he began adapting things. It’s that ability to absorb the lessons so quickly that’s the fascination with Cole.” America proved all the more a land of opportunity because “there was no real American landscape tradition. There was only topographical depictions, often done by army colonels for plotting land where they’d likely be fighting a battle on,” Riopelle noted. The field, in other words, was wide open for Cole to show off his talents. With his technical skill and knowledge of European standards, Cole was able to draw upon the palette, style and visual vocabulary of artists such as Turner, Constable, and Claude Lorrain while applying his own perspective to the wide open spaces and wilderness of the American landscape. By the time he came back to America, he was 31 years old. Yet he was looked upon as a hero and an exemplar by younger artists at the time. Painters such as Frederick Church and Durand (one of the men who had spotted Cole’s work in the New York shop window years earlier) rallied around him. In the view of some art historians, Church went on to become a better painter than Cole.
Yet it was the teachings of Cole that served as a catalyst for his career. The Metropolitan Museum’s Cole exhibition is the brainchild of the curator Tim Barringer, an art history professor at Yale University who — like Cole — is a Briton now based in the US. As such, he brings his own trans-Atlantic perspective to the exhibition. Why did the Met and the National Gallery agree to program the show in the first place? “Because Thomas Cole is a central American artist, but also because he is a vital conduit in any discussion on relations between American and European art in that first half of the 19th century,” explained Riopelle.
The London leg of the exhibition will be twinned with another mini-exhibition: the display of a set of paintings by Ed Ruscha, “Course of Empire,” that took its title and theme from a famous Cole series. Ruscha produced the first five “Course of Empire” paintings in black and white in the mid-1990s, then painted five more for the Venice Biennale in 2005, when he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. All 10 will be reunited in London on the occasion of the Cole show — and Ruscha will cross the Atlantic to hang them himself.
— This article appears in the February 2018 edition of Art+Auction.