Pine Shores Visits Met to See Cole Exhibit

By PAT JOHNSON | May 02, 2018
Artwork by: Thomas Cole ‘View of Round Top in the Catskill Mountains’ painted in 1827 by Thomas Cole.

According to our docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Cole, the 19th-century painter who famously painted the Catskill Mountain wilderness in New York state was the “father” not only of the Hudson River School of Painters, but of the American Landscape painters. He was the first to paint the American wilderness in all its majesty, including the Hudson River Valley around his country home of Catskill, N.Y.

Having spent 20 years of my young adult life in the environs of the Shawangunk and Catskill Mountains, I was excited to join the artists of the Pine Shores Art Association on their bus trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on April 18 to view the special exhibit “Thomas Cole’s Journeys: Atlantic Crossings,” which continues through May 13.

Cole’s journeys across the Atlantic are the focus of this exhibit as he first came to America from England 200 years ago, and would travel back to Europe twice during his lifetime but always return to his adopted home.

His parents decided to leave northern England in 1818 during the Industrial Revolution because it was difficult for their wool business to survive. Cole was 18 when they arrived in Philadelphia, and he worked for a time as an engraver for his father’s wallpaper design firm. Then he met an itinerant portrait painter and began his journeys as an artist to Ohio and Pittsburgh. He was largely self-taught, though he was aware of what British artists were doing; in particular, he admired the expressive might of William Turner’s seascapes and landscapes, John Constable’s harmonious pastoral scenes. Later in his career, on a trip back to Europe (1829-1831), he was influenced by a French painter, Claude Lorrain, who used soft but dramatic lighting effects in his “Seaport with Embarkation of Saint Ursula.”  Paintings by these artists enhance the exhibit and help tell his story.

Cole was to utilize this atmospheric style of painting to good effect on his first major wilderness painting, “View of Round Top in the Catskills,” painted in 1827. In the foreground on a promontory is an altar-like rock illuminated with a bright, heavenly light. On the left, a wind-twisted tree tells of mortality, a subject he would utilize in many paintings. There is a drop-off to a valley we cannot see, but we do see the wall of a dark mountain, Round Top, obstructing three quarters of our view and splitting the canvas into a diagonal. This was another effect he would use in future paintings.

The painting was an instant success for Cole, and he continued to paint the Catskills.

Throughout his life and in his painting subjects, Cole would fight to keep America from becoming the industrial wasteland he saw happening in northern England, where iron foundries ate up forests and belched flames and fumes into the air. His paintings of the Catskill region might include Native Americans or a hunter or painter, but these humans were painted tiny; their pursuits were minuscule compared to the grandeur of the mountains and forests.

But industrialization along the river was happening. The Erie Canal had been built in 1817, linking the Hudson to the Great Lakes, and helped open commerce and resources to and from the West, but in 1836 it was enlarged and deepened to allow for larger boats. It was this time when the idea of manifest destiny (America’s right to extend to the Pacific Ocean) and the desire to tame the wilderness took hold of the public.

Cole’s trip to Europe from 1834 to ’36 included the kind of tour wealthy art patrons would take. Alongside such people he viewed the ruins of Pompeii and Rome. He painted the ruined Coliseum and other sights –take-home travelogues for wealthy patrons. His biggest commission came from Luman Reed, a wealthy New York grocer. He was to paint five large canvases for Reed’s New York City mansion. “The Course of Empire” took Cole two years to finish (1834-36).

The five-painting “moral” masterpiece on display in the exhibit shows the march of civilization from “The Savage State,” a beautiful wilderness, to the “Pastoral State,” as people begin clearing and farming the land, to “Consummation of Empire” – a picture of a Roman-like civilization devoid of nature – to “Destruction,” as wars decimate the city to ruins, and finally to “Desolation,” as nature takes over the ruins.

Cole also wrote an essay on American scenery for the first edition of the Atlantic Monthly Magazine, printed in January 1836.

By this time Cole had settled into his Catskill home, was married and had a son and was visited by artists and writers, notably the poet Williams Cullen Bryant and the painter Asher B. Durand. He made frequent trips to the city, where he was a member of the Bread and Cheese Club of writers and artists that included James Fenimore Cooper.

When he died in 1848, his friend Durand painted Cole’s posthumous portrait with a portrait of Bryant, the two standing in an idealized setting that combined views of the Kaaterskill Falls, Kaaterskill Clove and Fawn’s Leap in the Catskills.

In 1904, the New York state legislature also recognized the unique wilderness area of the Catskills and set aside the Catskill Park, an area of over 50,000 acres where limited development is allowed within the blue line of the park. But groups such as the Catskill Mountainkeepers have been formed to protect the park and have thwarted attempts to turn the Catskills into a Las Vegas type region – only one casino has been allowed, on Kiamesha Lake in Sullivan County. In 2015, after much lobbying from conservation groups, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration banned natural gas fracking in the Catskill Park.

Today visitors can view the same spectacular scenery in the Catskill Mountains that Cole and his followers did, even trekking to the exact spots he painted on trails from his home and studio, now a museum in Catskill. 


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