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Thomas Cole’s Arcadia

The American landscape painter Thomas Cole (1801–1848), the founder of the Hudson River School, was born in Northern England in 1801 when his native landscape, leafy and green, began to wither under the grimy dark soot of smokestacks and scarring by machines. When he was 17, he accompanied his family to America where he would live and thrive, most famously in the Hudson River Valley, and become a citizen. On this side of the Atlantic, he would again witness the beginning of the fall of Eden.

Steps of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue.

Largely taught by itinerant artists in America, Cole returned to England in 1829-31 to formally study art, taking classes in life drawing and studying the great works in museums. He studied the pastoral English landscapes of John Constable, especially the ruins of Hadleigh Castle, and the civilized French classical seasides of Claude Lorrain. He met the wild and wooly J.M.W. Turner in person but whose paintings struck him as a little too wild. Cole grew proficient in drawing, especially after taking a sojourn in Italy. There, he saw and painted ruins of a collapsed empire, images that would continue to inform his imagination.

Thomas Cole. The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire 1835-36

Cole brought all this learning back to American in 1832 and set about drawing and painting the rise and fall of civilization in the New World. And what a world he must have witnessed in the 1830s - idyllic forests and rivers teeming with birds (documented by a fellow living American artist, John James Audubon), and indigenous people living in harmony with their surroundings. After seeing the ravages of civilization, Cole set out on an ambitious of sequence of paintings, The Course of Empire, to capture the lessons. At the same time, he worked on another painting, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, that would tell the story in one fell swoop.

Thomas Cole. The Course of Empire: Desolation 1836

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, Thomas Cole's Journey: Atlantic Crossings, explains this transatlantic influence on Cole’s work. The entire sequence of The Course of Empire is on display at The Met; five glorious paintings that tell the story of rise and fall of civilization with drama and exquisite detail - from the lush harmonies of nature to the classic Consummation of Empire to the ruins and fragments of Desolation. Drawing upon the Italian ruins he encountered abroad, the painting is both a somber reflection on human folly as well as the resilience of nature. The birds will pick at what’s left, making a nest at the top of a surviving column.

Thomas Cole. View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow. 1836. Oil on Canvas. Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1908. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Oxbow, as this celebrated work is commonly called, pulls these themes together in one painting. Cole contrasts wild and untamed Nature on the left, with its untamed trees and abundant overgrowth, with the marks of culture on the right. The land below is not in ruins just yet but tamed, flattened, and deforested. Cole himself looks out at the viewer in a tiny self-portrait near the bottom of the painting. He’s camped out on the wild side, yet he’s not so wild looking with that fancy hat of his and an easel. But we know where he stands.

In front of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, looking south on Fifth Avenue.

The setting for this exhibition could not be better. One look at the exterior of The Met and its granite plaza and heavily pruned trees conjures comparisons to Cole’s narrative. Fortunately, something of an Arcadia may be found within walking distance of the museum. Landscaped in a purposeful way but still full of green lawns and trees and birds, nearby Central Park is here to remind us of Nature.

View of Central Park, New York, just south of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

And it is spring.

Thomas Cole's Journey: Atlantic Crossings
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Through May 13, 2018
Website

Paintings by Thomas Cole. Photos of the museum and park by Walking Off the Big Apple from March 26, 2018.

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