“Thomas Cole: Landscape into History” at the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York. January 13–April 2, 1995

This exhibition of about sixty works by the English-born American artist Thomas Cole (1801–1848) is the first major overview of his work since the late 1940s. But if Cole’s work has not been much in the public eye of late, it has been on the public’s—at least the art public’s—mind. For the last fifteen years or so, Cole has enjoyed a quiet vogue among those concerned to champion what it has pleased them to call “the American Sublime,” a fresh-scrubbed, homegrown version of Romanticism whose sources include the aesthetic writings of Joseph Addison and Edmund Burke and the landscapes of Claude Lorraine and such Dutch masters as Hobbema and Ruysdael. Cole, who came to the United States when he was seventeen, counted Frederic Edwin Church among his pupils and is generally regarded as the major inspiration for the so-called Hudson River School. The popularity of that mid-nineteenth-century phenomenon has helped boost Cole’s stock, and it is surprising that he has not hitherto attracted serious attention among curators seeking to please the museum-going public.

The present exhibition, organized jointly by the National Museum of American Art and the New-York Historical Society (which was to have been the New York venue), will surely go a long way toward satisfying the craving for Cole. The works chosen for the exhibition vary widely—indeed, wildly—in quality. At his best, Cole displayed a certain breathless vigor and real feeling for grand prospects; combined with a studied genius for composition—Cole’s arrangement of objects and zones within his paintings almost always surpasses his draftsmanship— this attachment to uplift enabled him to produce some remarkable pictures. If his most stirring and dramatic landscapes—e.g., Romantic Landscape with Ruined Tower (1832–36), Mount Etna from Taormina, Sicily (1844), Landscape, Composition, St. John in the Wilderness (1827)—often flirt with melodrama, his more restrained efforts—The Architect’s Dream (1840), The Gardens of the Van Rensselaer Manor House (1840)—possess a nearly classic dignity that tempers Cole’s penchant for bombast.

Writing about Cole in the late 1940s, Clement Greenberg observed that the more casual one’s acquaintance with his work, the more highly one was likely to rate him. At first blush, the exuberance of Cole’s painting inclined Greenberg to place him with Eakins, Homer, and Ryder at the top of the American pantheon. Greater familiarity bred greater reservations. Greenberg conjectured that Cole “did not adequately understand his own gift,” and there is much in the present exhibition to support that judgment. When Cole was content to paint a landscape, he could produce some lovely work. Individual patches of foliage are quite fetching. Unfortunately, he was addicted to the Ideal, to grandiosity in all its stage-lit, hyperventilated forms, and the more he succumbed to this passion the more his paintings are likely to seem, as Greenberg put it, “too heavy, mechanical, and uniform to permit the canvas to breathe.”

The burden of the ideal is especially heavy in Cole’s ambitious allegorical sequences, The Course of Empire (1834–36) and The Voyage of Life (1842). He may have been in hot pursuit of an impossible goal: to blend allegory, which requires great attention to the particular, with the sublime, which requires the surrender of particularity to the absolute. “A clear idea,” Burke wrote in his book on the beautiful and the sublime, “is another name for a little idea.” Maybe so. But large ideas in art are a dangerous thing—dangerous, anyway, to the aesthetic substance of art. It is easy to admire the noble sentiments that went into Cole’s grandest works. The problem is suppressing a giggle when contemplating the woodenness of his figures: their every gesture is a pose and their conversation, could one transcribe it, would be full of Thees, Thous, and a baroque scheme of capitalization.

Cole probably should have stuck to the vegetable and mineral kingdoms; animals of all descriptions were beyond him. There are some really lamentable sheep in this exhibition, not to mention a boneless Prometheus bound to his rock and a senile Daniel Boone. Cole’s Indians tend to remind one of Fenimore Cooper’s Indians, as seen by Mark Twain: the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian in front of a cigar store, Twain observed, is not large.

“Thomas Cole” was previously on view at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. (March 18–August 7, 1994), and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut (September 11– December 4, 1994). A catalogue, edited by William H. Truettner and Alan Wallach, and with essays by divers hands, has been published by the National Museum of American Art and Yale University Press (186 pages, $50; $29.95 paper).

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 6, on page 47
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