"Must I tell you that nether the Alps nor the Appenines, no, nor even Aetna itself, have dimmed, in my eyes, the beauty of our own Catskills? It seems to me that I look on American scenery, if it were possible, with increased pleasure. It has it's own peculiar charm - a something not fond elsewhere. I am content with nature: would that I were with art!"
What happens when a painter tries to rise above the ordinary? What happens when he decides what has always been considered acceptable coming from his palette is not "good enough" on his own terms? And what happens when, in striving for something better, his friends and patrons meet his efforts with disinterest? Perhaps the best expert on this quandary was Thomas Cole. Cole was born in England in 1801, and had he remained there, he quite possibly might have been the happier man for it. Exposed at an early age to the academic style of the Grand Manner he was already a self-taught amateur painter when his parents left the industrialised cities of England and brought him to the Ohio and Pennsylvania frontier at the age of 17.
The experience was overwhelming to the senses of the young man at the time. The virgin wilderness had a profound effect upon him. It flowered in his art. Returning to New York at the age of 25, he journeyed up the Hudson River and came back with a whole boatload of landscape paintings of specific, familiar sites. They struck a responsive chord. He became not only a celebrity amongst New York artists, but he was rewarded with instant sales. Some men would have been satisfied with such fame and success, but Cole considered his work "merely" landscapes and yearned for a more "serious" painting success. So, in 1829 he broke free of his provincial ties and headed for Europe to travel, study, and paint with the best of them.
Upon returning three years later, he prepared to "show his stuff" and impress the backward Americans with "important" work. He first found a patron in the person of Luman Reed, a successful grocery wholesaler who purchased only works by American artists. Then he embarked on a series of allegorical paintings entitled The Course of Empire--five large canvases depicting a single site as it changed from savage, to pastoral, to consummation (a great, gaudy, decadent city), to destruction, to desolation and ruin. He obviously saw this as the course of the American empire. So, perhaps, did the American empire builders of the time and it was something they didn't want to think about. Whatever the case the entire series was a bit "heavy" for American tastes and Cole quickly found himself back to painting Hudson River scenes such as his most famous, The Oxbow, a well-known view overlooking the Connecticut River near Northampton. Undaunted however, he didn't give up allegorical art. In the 1840s he created another series of five paintings, entitled The Voyage of Life (which was highly esteemed and successful in a series of engraved prints), as well as a huge fantasy painting entitled The Architect's Dream. (His patron was an architect.)
contributed by Lane, Jim
8 June 1998