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Cole’s Roles at Metropolitan Museum: Hudson River School Progenitor, Environmentalist Precursor

The Metropolitan Museum’s just opened Thomas Cole‘s Journey: Atlantic Crossings (to May 13) is easy on the eyes and a balm to the spirit. But it also sounds a warning that gained new resonance with President Trump’s did-he-really-say-that moment in the State of the Union address on Tuesday, when he unexpectedly extolled “beautiful clean coal.”

Cole’s coal is more bane than boon, giving his lovely landscapes an edgy timeliness in an era when climate-change theories are becoming reality.

All photos by Lee Rosenbaum

Having journeyed from his birthplace in gritty, industrial northern England to the then idyllic mountain landscapes of the eastern United States (nourishing his art with trips back to England and to Italy), Cole had an inkling of man’s being on the brink of polluting his earthly paradise.

He does allow us to delight in a few pristine landscapes:

“The Garden of Eden,” 1828, Amon Carter Museum of American Art

But many scenes betray hints of development and industrialization encroaching upon previously unspoiled vistas, with smoke or fire as ominous warnings of the visual and atmospheric adulteration ahead:

“View of Monte Video, Seat of Daniel Wadsworth, Esq.,” 1828, Wadsworth Atheneum

What most struck me about the sweeping mountain vista, above, near Hartford, CT, was the delicate rendering of individual leaves in the right foreground, glistening and translucent in the sunlight:

But to the show’s co-organizer, Elizabeth Kornhauser, who came to the Met as its curator of American paintings and sculpture from the Wadsworth Atheneum (the museum that owns “Monte Video”), this scene tellingly contrasts “pure wilderness” with “the rapid settlement of land, seen in the distant valley below” (in the words of the painting’s label).

A less subtle rendering of man’s spoliation of nature explodes in the five-painting series that normally resides just across Central Park from the Met, at the New-York Historical Society. I’ll leave it to you to decide which of these five episodes most resembles our current situation.

Here’s the Met’s intimate, eye-level installation of this grand series:

“The Course of Empire,” 1834-36, New-York Historical Society

Cole’s exquisitely painted polemic tracks the evolution and degradation of the same landscape from “The Savage State,” seen at dawn…

…to “The Arcadian or Pastoral State”…

…in which an old man on the left engraves geometric shapes into the soil using a stick, and dancers on the right cavort to the tunes of a flute player…







…to the height of civilization (with its attendant excesses) in “The Consummation of Empire”…

…to the chaos of war, pillage, fire and rape in “Destruction”…

…to the city in ruins at nightfall in “Desolation”:

Cole’s depiction of these skeletal remnants of former glory was informed by his trip to Italy, where the aqueducts of the Roman Campagna “provided a powerful symbol of the fallen empire,” in the words of this painting’s label:

“Aqueduct Near Rome,” 1832, Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, St. Louis

This powerful show would have been even stronger had the Met also managed to snare another of Cole’s monumental parables—his four-painting exploration of “The Voyage of Life” (Childhood, Youth, Manhood, Old Age), 1842, a highlight of the American art collection of the National Gallery, Washington. (The first version of that series resides in the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY.) “Voyage” would have made a good foil for the “Empire” series, which is already familiar to New York City museum habitués.

Also familiar to Met regulars is its Turner-inspired “The Oxbow” (the catalogue’s cover image), from the same year as “Empire”:

“View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm,” 1836, Metropolitan Museum

Like the Met’s still open Michelangelo show (to Feb. 12), “Cole” broadens its perspective to include the artist’s forebears and those he later influenced. The show includes some of the exact works that inspired him, including the Turner below, of which he made pencil sketches when he viewed it at a 1829 Royal Academy exhibition.

That display “was Cole’s first opportunity to see landscape painting of such ambition and originality,” according to the Met’s label:

J.M.W. Turner, “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus–Homer’s Odyssey,” 1829, National Gallery, London

What’s astonishing is that Cole had to make “great efforts to piece together an artistic training” and “long[ed] for a thorough artistic training,” which he essentially gave himself through looking and copying, as we learn from the lively introductory essay for the sumptuously illustrated catalogue by the show’s co-organizer, Tim Barringer, art history professor at Yale.

His followers in the Hudson River School (a term unknown to Cole himself), who are represented at the end of the show, included Frederic Church, whom he taught, and Asher B. Durand, his close friend, who painted this memorial to his role model (below, on the right), in a masterpiece that was infamously sold by the New York Public Library to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art—a spoliation of New York’s cultural landscape.

It’s now returned to New York, to remind us of what we’ve lost:

Asher B. Durand, “Kindred Spirits,” 1849, Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, AR

The translucent leaves in the sunlight of “Kindred Spirits” echo the effect I admired in Cole’s “Monte Video” painting that I discussed above.

If you want to further immerse yourself in Cole’s world, the Thomas Cole Historic Site in Catskill, NY (which I visited in eight years ago) is a scenic two-hour drive north:

There you can enjoy the vista that he saw through his window:

At the upper right, you can see where he may have gotten his inspiration for his paintings’ translucent leaves, glistening in the sun.

While you’re in the area, you can see another source of his visual inspiration (seen in “Kindred Spirits”)—Kaaterskill Falls, “one of the most scenic sites in 19th-century America, painted several times by Thomas Cole and most of the artists of the Hudson River School,” according to the plaque marking this much visited spot.

Like the scenery that inspired him, the Met’s Cole show is visual feast that’s seasoned with some bitter truths.

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