PRINT October 1969

Thomas Cole

THOMAS COLE HAS ALWAYS BEEN ACKNOWLEDGED as an important figure in the history of American art. This is not to say he has always been appreciated. Jonas Mekas recently wrote that one might learn something about light from Cole’s paintings; this despite the fact that Cole was “bad and stupid.” Mekas’ remarks are a fair measure of how far we have come in our appreciation of Cole’s art—and also how far we may yet have to go before we can come to terms with it.

I am not convinced that Cole was either bad or stupid. Nor do I think anyone partial to Cole need apologize for the complexities of his oeuvre. That Cole’s paintings have become increasingly popular over the last thirty years is some proof of their powers. Although they may lack the virtues that have endeared Constable and Turner (with whom Cole inevitably is compared) to modern audiences, they have virtues of their own. Of these we are just becoming aware.

It is perhaps too early to predict an overall revaluation of Cole’s abilities. One can say, however, that the five month traveling exhibition of his work probably did much to further our understanding of Cole. It was a spectacular show (thanks mainly to the efforts of Professor Howard Merritt, the foremost student of Cole’s art, who also was responsible for the informative catalog). It also was quite revealing. Besides a number of well-known works, including such standards as the Voyage of Life and the Oxbow, the exhibition brought together a selection of fine works ferreted out of private and college collections. And yet, even while this exhibition might have very much raised one’s opinion of Cole’s art, it also underlined some of the inherent dilemmas.

Cole was in no way a typically American artist. Born in England, he had, as the journalist William Stillman recalled, “a strongly individual English mind.” With such a mind, Cole could found a “native” school; but he was not a nativist. In retrospect, his over-reaction (for that is what it was) to American scenery, his megalomaniacal fantasies and evangelical exercises follow as logical consequences of his youthful experience of industrialization and the horrors of poverty in Lancashire and Cheshire. In nature and in art Cole found an escape. His early landscapes, with their convulsed trees, storm-swept skies and precariously balanced rocks, carry an urgent message which no contemporary American-born artist could duplicate. They adumbrated a mood Americans were then just beginning to feel.

This in part accounts for Cole’s early success. There were other reasons as well. In 1825, shortly after arriving in New York, Cole was discovered by Benjamin West’s ancient pupil John Trumbull. What Trumbull recognized in Cole’s first attempts was a realization of all that his British training had prepared him to see. For in America, without formal instruction but with a genius for drawing and (it must be said) for painstaking systematic labor, Cole managed the singular feat of wedding British esthetics to American scenery. Theory tempered, to some extent, his romantic ardor, and provided a technical foundation for his art. Like many autodidacts, Cole was utterly convinced that painting could be deduced from rules. Yet without an academy to dictate their application, he was able in his landscapes to escape academicism. While he relied on compositional formulae derived from prints, he also relied upon the direct study of nature. It was this dialectic between theory and first-hand experience that drove his art forward. At a certain point, however—and this is the fundamental paradox of Cole’s art—theory and study became divorced and were more or less left alone to go their separate ways. By the 1840s Cole was producing some of his most empirical works—and also some of his most contrived.

Initially, when theory dominated, nature was filtered through an elaborate matrix of preconceptions. Associationalist philosophy and its standardized categories of esthetic experience had led Cole to believe that truth to nature—the ideal “general nature” of British esthetics—could be arrived at only through eclecticism. Compositions, he wrote his patron Gilmor in a well-known letter of 1826, “. . . surpass in beauty and effect any picture painted from a single view.” Theory granted him a license to exaggerate, and his early landscapes are brimming with hyperbolic metaphors of his own hysteria. Gnarled trees writhe in an agonized frenzy. Rocks teeter atop one another or are assembled into a fantastic architecture. Mountains and cliffs shoot skywards at impossibly steep angles. Gulfs are always bottomless and abysses untraversable. Often perspective is adjusted: not only did Cole employ, as Wolfgang Born noticed, a “shifting vanishing point” in the Oxbow; in some instances his panoramic views seem to divide into separated vistas which only converge in the foreground, as in the Expulsion From the Garden of Eden. Sometimes, although Cole probably was unconscious of it, the strain is directly translated into symbols of sexual frustration—cavern entrances, natural bridges, fountains, goblets, towers, giant upright cylindrical rocks.

Cole was not exempted from the obvious deficiencies of eclecticism. His method of drawing, as David Huntington has observed, was neoclassical, which is to say that he placed his subjects in a glaring analytical light, and drew by proceeding from outlines to tones. In his paintings, the clarity of individually studied elements could lead to harshness; and at times coloring might become confused with local color.

These difficulties should not be overstressed. Cole was, almost from the beginning, attentive to the overall effect of light, atmosphere and color. In a short period of time he developed a capacity to paint with remarkable fluidity. This is especially evident in his splendid oil sketches (Distant View of the Falls of Niagara), but the finished landscapes, although always more controlled, sometimes display a similar vivaciousness of touch (Catskill Mountain House).

However, although he came close to it when, for example, he saw Turner’s private collection of paintings, he never became involved in the enjoyment of light and color per se. Although he was a master of lighting effects, or could astutely place a startlingly red chair in the center of a green lawn (as in The Van Rensselaer Manor House), he believed that formal qualities were meant to have “the subservience of a vehicle.” This he also had learned from books and the belief was reinforced by his puritanical inclinations as well as by his friends and patrons: they would have been repelled by the notion that a painting might be an occasion for pleasure. A painting’s ultimate justification was its social utility: to improve the viewer by instructing him.

In this respect, as in many others, Cole adopted the philosophy of the conservative “establishment” to which Trumbull had introduced him. Or it might be more precise to say that he shared many of their aristocratic views from the beginning. Art provided the means for attaining a degree of gentility his lower middle class parents had aspired to but had never been able to afford. In America he had become a gentleman (and during the 1820s and 1830s there was still a considerable distance between gentlemen and commoners). He even had gone so far as to join the sedate Episcopal Church despite his family’s tradition of Dissent and his own highly emotional millennialism.

He had also accepted, up to a point, the traditional role of landscape artist, painting country seats, topographical views, sublime and picturesque scenery. His instinct for what was required had been so sure that on his first trip up the Hudson, besides searching for and, remarkably, finding ruins, he decided to paint two scenes of the area around the newly opened, expensive and popular Catskill Mountain House.

But there were complications. With the rise of Jacksonian Democracy, the old aristocracy’s power declined (although a brief comeback was staged with the election of the Whig William Henry Harrison in 1840). Indeed the erosion of their position already had been signalled in 1816 with the demise of the Federalist Party. In a sense, by the time Cole appeared on the scene, they were a dying class. Their view of America, exemplified in Cooper’s novels, now tended to be retrospective and tinged with nostalgia. In his paintings of wild landscapes, sometimes populated by mythical Indians or furtive deer, Cole caught something of this mood by recreating an uncomplicated world that had by then all but vanished. His renditions of rural bliss (see Home in the Woods, 1846) exude a similar although more subdued feeling.

If anything symbolized the end of the old aristocracy’s hegemony, it was the death of General Stephen Van Rensselaer, last of the great Hudson River Patroons. Afterwards his giant estates were broken up. When his family abandoned the patriarchal manor house, they had Cole paint a last, lingering backward glance.

It was the end of an epoch, and the old aristocracy discovered that it was surrounded with signs of moral and social decay: riots, a dangerous influx of foreign workingmen, manipulative Jacksonian Democrats, Abolitionists, etc. This was largely attributed to an excess of democracy which eventually was transubstantiated into the inexorable workings of the laws of history. Civilizations rose and fell; although strong doses of morality might indefinitely slow the process, the final tragic outcome was inevitable. Perhaps after reading The Ruins of Paestum by his friend, the poet Henry Pickering, Cole adopted, in 1827 or 1828, the cyclical theory. It very well suited his pessimism and later he would proclaim it with the shrill enthusiasm of a newly-born convert in The Course of Empire (1836).

It was upon this series and the ones that followed that Cole staked his reputation. He did not misjudge his audience. During his lifetime The Course of Empire was often and extravagantly praised; his later series fared almost equally well. One is hard pressed to say whether or not Cole had any other option. Everything had impelled him in this direction: the estheticians he read proclaimed the superiority of history painting over other genres. So too had Trumbull and his friends. He knew of precedents, like Turner’s Carthaginian series (which he very much admired), that justified combining landscape and history for didactic purposes. Finally—and this was probably the decisive factor—he was disinclined to accept forever the role of landscapist.

Landscape had provided Cole with an outlet for his feelings. Still he was ambivalent before nature because also served, as Jerrold Lanes has pointed out, to sharpen the contradictions within himself. Probably he felt the need to justify himself and for this the moral lessons implicit in his early landscapes and history paintings were insufficient. Given the circumstances, the temptation to preach was overwhelming.

Yet Cole sensed that somehow he had not succeeded. Perhaps he was more than vaguely aware of his position: occasionally he commented on the bind in which he found himself, or thought that painting for money had been a mistake. Although the appraisal was shrewd, the solution he projected—the creation of even larger allegorical series—only heightened his dilemma.

Alan Wallach