Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Last days of Thomas Cole at the National Gallery

Yesterday I went to see the exhibition of paintings by Thomas Cole at the National Gallery. It's impressive and I learned a lot.

The exhibition Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire is in the Ground Floor Galleries - which many people seem to miss when visiting the National Gallery. Certainly they one of those places which you need to know are there and how to reach them (from the staircase or lift in the centre of Level 2 or from the cafe at the ground floor level). It finishes on 7th October.

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm
- The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole

Oil on canvas, 130.8 × 193 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Source: Wikipedia)
Key things I took away from the exhibition are
  • The exhibition is significant - it includes 58 paintings, including a number on loan from various North American public and private collections
  • Thomas Cole was born in Bolton, Lancashire but emigrated to the USA age 17
  • Thomas Cole is regarded as "the father of landscape painting" in the USA - but was largely self-taught as a painter - although he seemed to emerge as a very sophisticated painter as if my magic!
  • He was influenced by both Joseph Mallord William Turner and John Constable and Claude Lorrain - whose work he travelled to see. Their paintings precede the exhibition of Cole's work - and you can see why when further into the exhibition. 
At the age of 28, Thomas Cole and his American patron, Luman Reed - a successful businessman and one of the earliest collectors of European and American art in the US - agreed it was time for him to take a study trip to Europe, beginning with London. Just a decade after leaving England to pursue a better life, he would return as a professional artist seeking to refine his technique and broaden his horizons though the great collections, and by associating with the most celebrated artists working at the time. At the National Gallery, which he visited, Cole was particularly enraptured with the work of Claude, especially Seaport with the Embarkation with Saint Ursula, which is included in this exhibition.
Not long after arriving in London, the young artist saw 'Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames - Morning after a Stormy Night' (1829, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven) by Constable, with whom he developed a friendship and exchanged letters and sketches. An admirer of Turner, Cole visited his studio, but was somewhat confounded by the image the artist presented of himself. A bit rough around the edges and artistically experimental, Turner did not resemble the image Cole had of an artist of international repute. 
  • Cole transposed the romanticism and the drama of Turner into views of the Catskill Mountains where he had made his home - with notes of strict realism concerning how the landscape is being changed forever.
In the five years following his return to New York late in 1832, Cole painted his greatest works in response to his time abroad.  Working from drawings and oil studies, he completed his epic painting cycle 'The Course of Empire' and 'The Oxbow' almost simultaneously in this period - both of which may be seen as the culmination of what he took away from his experiences in London, Florence, and Rome. 'The Course of Empire' depicts the rise and fall of an imaginary civilisation in an ancient style, but was intended to highlight the dangers of politics and commerce. It could not have been made but for those months in Italy. 'The Oxbow' was a challenge to the American public to consider its place in the natural world, and to keep in check the seemingly inevitable drive toward destruction.
  • He became known as the founding father of the Hudson River School, a group of American artists who sought to depict the untainted majesty of the American landscape.
  • His series paintings were constructed to tell a story of what happened when the landscape is abandoned to march of progress. It reminded me a lot of what happened in the USA during the time prior to the banking crisis associated with sub-prime loans 10 years ago.
The following four paintings all belong to the paintings collection of the New York Historical Society.

The Course of Empire: The Savage State (about 1834) by Thomas Cole
Oil on canvas, 99.7 × 160.6 cm

The Course of Empire: The Pastoral or Arcadian State (about 1834) by Thomas Cole
Oil on canvas, 99.7 × 160.6 cm

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) Thomas ColeOil on canvas, 130.2 × 193 cm
This one reminded me a lot of the problems associated with rulers who are big on appearances and and low on morality and fundamental truths.

The Course of Empire: Desolation (1836) by Thomas ColeOil on canvas, 99.7 × 161.3 cm
  • He died very young - age 47.
  • His students - such as Frederick Church - failed to uphold his principles with regard to the need to use art to communicate the impact of industrialisation on the landscape
Lots have reviewed the exhibition before me - so if you're trying to decide is it worth seeing before the exhibition closes on 7th October, now might be a good time to read them!

**** stars

*** stars
I'd be very happy to see more American art - especially those who produce paintings of North American landscapes - to find their way into exhibitions at the National Gallery!

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