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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Thomas Cole

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"? 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 industrialized cities of England and brought him to the Ohio and Pennsylvania frontier at the age of 17.   
The Oxbow (The Connecticut River near Northampton), 1836, Thomas Cole
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 boatload of landscape masterpieces of specific, familiar sites. They struck a responsive chord. He became not only a celebrity among 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.   
The Course of Empire (Consumation), 1835, Thomas Cole
Upon returning, 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 he quickly found himself back to painting Hudson River scenes such as his most famous, The Oxbow, a well-known scene overlooking the Connecticut River near Northampton. Undaunted however, he didn't give up allegorical painting.  He created another series of five paintings, entitled The Voyage of Life in the 1840s (which was highly esteemed and successful in a series of engraved prints) as well as a huge fantasy painting entitled The Architect's Dream for an architect friend. 
The Course of Empire (Desolation), 1836, Thomas Cole

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