The Views and Visions of Thomas Cole

by Carl Pfluger

Piopolis, PQ
Quebec, Canada GOY 1H0

Copyright (c) 1995 by Carl Pfluger.
This essay first appeared in
Reproduced with permission.


When Thomas Cole died in 1848, his reputation, both in the art world and among the general public, was enormous: probably higher than has been attained by any other American painter, before or since. Generally recognized as the founder of the "Hudson River School", the first really distinctively American movement in the visual arts, he had (largely by his own untutored efforts) virtually invented a new style of landscape, specializing in views of the wilderness which in those days could still be seen (though already requiring some effort to get around the touristy trappings) in the Northeastern States: especially in the valleys of the Hudson and Connecticut Rivers, and in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. At the same time, Cole (who was always working restlessly at improving his technique and diversifying his subjects) had also produced a large body of work more obviously derived from older European models: "Arcadian" pastorals in the tradition of Claude Lorrain; melodramatic renditions of Biblical and other literary themes, which owed a lot to John Martin; elegiac views of Antique ruins, mostly in Italy; and a handful of unclassifiable paintings which (at least to this untutored eye) look like uncanny anticipations of Surrealism. Yet more significant than all these, in the estimation of both Cole himself and most of his contemporaries, were those works generally described, for want of a better word, as allegories -- which Cole sometimes called "epico-historical", and which he always regarded as "the higher style of landscape". These were groups of pictures conceived and executed as consecutive series, illustrating in a clearly sequential narrative mode some moral, philosophical, religious or historical lesson. Pre-eminent among these sequences are The Course of Empire, The Voyage of Life, and The Cross and the World. These widely admired works were, Cole felt, his highest achievements, the strongest supports of his standing as an artist and a visionary.

     But hardly less phenomenal than the scale of Cole's reputation during his life was its steep and sudden decline shortly after his death. (I can't help feeling that Cole himself would have derived some melancholy enjoyment from this, pre-occupied as he so often was with spectacles of the transience of human accomplishment.) He was, to be sure, never completely forgotten; but in respectable opinion Cole's work was soon taken seriously in only one of its many facets - the "pure" landscapes, especially of "wild" scenes - and even these were often treated with a patronizing benevolence not far short of contempt. As for the paintings dearest to Cole's heart -- the religious allegories, the historical epics - they were dismissed or ignored as an embarrassment, just the kind of faux pas likely to be committed by an awkward bumpkin unaware of the true nature of his own genius - or of his proper station in life. By the beginning of this century the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, that priceless repository of Late-Victorian wisdom, summed up the prevailing view of Cole's "higher style" thus:

     Of course, none of the modernisms that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth had much use for the programmatic, narrative or illustrative dimensions of painting, tending to view them as a kind of contaminant to the purely formal, and increasingly abstract, visual or "painterly" elements. So it is understandable that Cole's reputation suffered from this change in the climate of artistic fashion, because he always was, in the manner fashionable in his own time, a thoroughly literary painter, who always assumed that the visual arts refer to some range of concerns beyond themselves - and who had no problem, by the way, in sometimes addressing those concerns in writing as well as in painting. As recently as 1962 James Thomas Flexner clucked disapprovingly over Cole's "dangerous literary gifts" - as if he would have been a better painter had he been illiterate, a kind of idiot savant!

     But more recently, fashions have been changing again -- is this one of the more beneficent effects of post-modernism? - making possible some steps toward rehabilitation. The most recent of such steps (and probably the biggest so far) is Thomas Cole: Landscape into History, a major exhibition organized at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC by William H. Truettner and Alan Wallach, displaying about 70 of Cole's paintings and accompanied by an illustrated catalogue (more useful and informative than such publications often are) including essays by J. Gray Sweeney, Christine Stansall and Sean Wilentz, as well as by Wallach and Truettner themselves.

     This exhibit is especially welcome because it makes a serious effort to get beyond that conventional wisdom of the past century or so, and to consider all facets of Cole's work with a more integrated and comprehensive view - closer at least to the painter's own intentions. Wallach, Truettner and their colleagues have also done much to place Cole in his social, political and cultural context in early nineteenth-century America. Their particular interpretations here must still be regarded as limited and tentative - no single formula could encapsulate so protean an artist as Thomas Cole - but there is no question, I think, that they are on the right track in trying to re-integrate "the two Thomas Coles" (as Professor Truettner titles his essay) and in taking Cole seriously as that rarity of the modern world, an artist who actually thinks: about nature and history, life and literature: about humankind and its place in the world.

     And as for how all that thinking inflected Cole's work as a painter - well of course, some of his works are technically better than others, and some are more derivative than others; and yes (the conventional wisdom was right to this extent) he developed his most original insights by working closely with some of the particular features of American scenery - features which were then still largely new to European eyes - but then going beyond this, he applied that insight to something both wider and deeper, developing (to invoke a pair of Cole's own favorite terms) a historical "vision" as well as a painterly "view." And that, one might say, is what landscape art, in its most authentic sense, is always trying to be about. For although landscape may sometimes seem to be a naive genre of painting, in reality it is not. Historically, both in China and in Europe (the only two cultures so far to have fully developed landscape at all) it arose very late in the artistic tradition. Only after many centuries of representing more or less distinct individual figures did people begin paying serious attention to the background in which those figures were placed, to the connecting spaces between them: in short, to their total environment. And it seems probable that such developments always depend on, but in turn contribute back to, parallel developments in such other fields as science, philosophy, religion, history and literature. In China, where painters were at least officially expected to be literati, a relation between landscape painting and both religious and philosophical Taoism, for example, has long been taken for granted. In the West (where of course our whole landscape tradition is much younger) such connections have been more problematic; but it is helpful to keep them in mind when trying to understand Thomas Cole, who was so passionately (and sometimes profoundly) religious, literary, and historically-minded a painter: in all of his work, even the most superficially "naive" of his wilderness scenes.

     No, there were not "two Thomas Coles"; but there is an unresolved duality within Cole himself, and within his work: a division too glaring to be ignored. Toward the end of his own essay in the catalogue Professor Wallach approaches this division, rather diffidently, when he writes:
                 " . . . if a fault line runs through Cole's art, it lies between the historical and
                 the ahistorical, between the landscapes and allegories that in a more or less
                 fragmentary way evoke the stages of history and 'mutation of earthly things'
                 and the religious allegories and related paintings. Yet even this division is in
                 a sense unnecessary since, as we have seen, the historical and the ahistorical
                 were themselves closely connected.."

I would put it rather differently. Virtually all of Cole's work is historical; but the difference between, say, The Course of Empire and The Cross and the World is between "natural history" and "supernatural history" - what German theologians in the nineteenth century were already beginning to call Heilsgeschichte ("the History of Salvation") and which they represented as the central theme of all Biblical religion. Another way of describing this "fault line" might be to say that his work was always religious - but that Cole actually believed in (or at least tried to believe in) two different religions at the same time. Christianity (to which, given his own historical origins, Cole could scarcely escape having at least a nominal commitment) co-existed in him with his personal version of that fully religious reverence for Nature which he seems to have believed in most strongly - which has actually been around, in one form or another, a good while longer than Christianity itself, but which was just re-emerging with special force and intensity in Cole's own Romantic period - and which was the real source of Cole's strength and originality as a landscapist.

     I'm not sure how conscious Cole was of the tension between his two religious loyalties - my suspicion is that he could not admit it to himself, and kept trying, out of a dogged sense of duty, to impose his familiar but somewhat shop-worn Christianity onto his more impassioned but less articulated Naturalism - but its effects show, often quite painfully, in his more didactically Christian pictures. Few things in the history of art can be more literally excruciating than those crosses glowing like neon signs in the desert -- a "prophecy" come literally true in our time, which Cole, had he lived to see it with his eyes of flesh, would certainly have abhorred! - or those insipidly phosphorescent figures of Christ and of angels (anemic, attenuated derivatives of Raphael and his successors, the bane of so much post-Renaissance Christian art . . . ) which seem to have dropped down like aliens out of a UFO (often accompanied by unnatural laser-like light effects) into an otherwise passably naturalistic landscape in such paintings as The Pilgrim of the Cross at the End of his Journey, or the Angels Ministering to Christ in the Wilderness. Of course one could always argue that such gauche intrusiveness is a respectable artistic convention, meant to suggest the absolutely transcendent and supernal power of the Divine; but such an argument would have already conceded the most important point: that at least in its symbolic language, Cole's Christianity is always referring ultimately to some source of value which does not co-exist comfortably or harmoniously with anything we can readily recognize as "nature", that is, with the world as we know it on Earth. And it could also be argued that much of the awkwardness in these Christian paintings results from a much simpler and more technical cause: Cole's notorious weakness in handling the human figure. It is true that his figures are often inept; but not uniformly so. Generally they are at their worst when Cole seems not to have a clear sense of how his humans fit naturally into their surroundings, when he just sticks them in for more or less clearly arbitrary and symbolic purposes. He sometimes did this even in his "pure" wilderness scenes. (Truettner and Wallach give one especially egregious instance of this: when Cole painted The Falls of the Kaaterskill in 1826 it was already a busy tourist attraction, with the usual clutter of hotels, walkways and protected bridges overlooking the Falls. Cole omitted all that from his painting; instead, he placed a solitary Native American in the scene. This poor Indian is stuck there, quite awkwardly and unaesthetically, leaning against his bow on a bare ledge right in the middle of the painting. Clearly, he serves here only as a self-conscious sign or label, as if one had written a caption: "THIS PICTURE REPRESENTS AMERICA BEFORE THE WHITE MAN".) But cases like that are extreme, and rare. Cole's level of technical accomplishment varied considerably from time to time, but he could and did paint human figures credibly enough when he had reason to: when this was clearly demanded by his conception, and supported by what we would call the "human ecology" of his design.

     In his Arcadian pastorals, for instance, human beings (and their artifacts) tend to fit happily into their natural settings. These pictures probably represent Cole's most Utopian vision, the clearest personal declaration of his idea of the Good Life, the True and the Beautiful. For although Cole fully deserves to be recognized as one of the nineteenth century godfathers of the modern environmental movement; although he genuinely loved his wilderness scenes, and certainly contributed largely to that positive re-evaluation of the very idea of "the wilderness" which (in such contrast to the Biblical attitudes of dread and hostility) has been one of the great revolutions in values accomplished over the past couple of centuries; still, Cole would not have qualified as an "environmental extremist", even by the most polemical of definitions current today. He did not assume an irreconcilable antipathy between "Man" and "Nature"; he had none of the misanthropy that sometimes infects the wilder fringes of Deep Ecology. Wallach and Truettner characterize his general attitude as "pessimist conservatism", which is fair enough as far as it goes; but it really doesn't take us very far toward understanding the deepest ranges of Cole's yearnings, his aspirations or his fears. He did fulminate, in writings such as American Scenery, against the "ravages of the axe" in his beloved woods, but his "conservatism" always allowed for a fitting measure of progress, and held out the hope for a harmonious co-existence of the human and the natural: a vision, finally, of Man as an essential (but not tyrannically domineering) part of Nature, hopefully respectful of, and always subject to, the limits of the natural world. This is the vision realized most idyllically in those Arcadian or pastoral scenes, where the boundaries between the natural and the human worlds are shown clearly enough, but generally in soft and mutually yielding contours, not in the harsh lines of a radical confrontation. (Such softness of outline, we should notice, is both a real physical feature of the geologically ancient mountains of Eastern North America, and an instantly recognizable visual signature in most of Cole's paintings; just as those almost incredibly vertical - but equally real - Chinese mountains portrayed by the painters of the Northern Sung School are an equally characteristic "signature" of their work.) In these pictures, Cole's painterly vocabulary begins to express something of the idea of "bio-regionalism" - a term perhaps more familiar to ecologists than to art critics, but one which seems singularly appropriate to the vision of Thomas Cole. These landscapes have been "humanized", it's true, compared to the "wild scenes"; but the humans in them (and their works, especially in the pictures of ruins) have themselves become more integrally a part of the natural scene. And in The Course of Empire - which after all is teeming with human figures - the "fit" is accomplished even more effectively: because it is the over-arching theme of the whole series.

     One might almost say that Cole handled his human subjects best when he was able to treat them -- legitimately - as part of the scenery. "Scenery" always was a favorite word of his; and while its theatrical connotations may make some of us uncomfortable, there really is no way around it: Cole's art was theatrical in almost every way. He was well aware of this trait in himself and, not without humor, he sometimes indulged in some fairly broad self-parody about it. In The Architect's Dream (unfortunately not included in this exhibit) he presents us with a fantastic heap of conflicting architectural styles - all framed by a mass of tasselled ropes and drapery clearly suggestive of a stage-curtain. Looking at this picture, I find it impossible not to believe that Cole was having a bit of fun, both with himself and with Ithiel Towne, the architect who commissioned it. (Towne seems to have thought so, too; but lacking Cole's humor, he refused to pay for the picture.) The Architect's Dream is not really typical of Cole's work -- and yet the picture of his which it most closely resembles, in its proto-Cecil B. de Mille monumentality, is The Consummation of Empire, the oversized centerpiece of Cole's best and most personally characteristic series, The Course of Empire - which Wallach and Truettner justly offer as the pièce de résistance of their exhibition.

     In this grandest and most completely realized of his "epico-historical works, Cole presented his synoptic and secular vision of the situation of Man-in-Nature, bringing together nearly all his familiar themes and deploying all his painterly styles and vocabularies. In five successive scenes he shows us a civilization progressing from the condition of primitive hunters in the wilderness, through an agrarian/pastoral Arcadia to the megalopolitan pomp of the Consummation - a neo-Classical nightmare suggesting Washington, DC, as it might have been re-designed by Albert Speer - which is then destroyed by war in the fourth scene, to subside into a remarkably tranquil and beautiful set of ruins in the fifth, the only picture of the set from which living human beings are entirely absent. ("Desolation" is the title of this piece, but somehow one does not feel that Cole really felt all that desolate while painting it: this view of the natural world placidly reclaiming its territory from the fallen city is the most hauntingly beautiful picture of the series.) Constant through all these scenes are two features of the natural setting: a precipitous mountain, always visible in the distance, and the long narrow bay around which the city eventually grows. "Mountains and water" - clear symbols of an elemental duality; and, according to Chinese ideas (which Cole may never have heard of, but which he so often seems to have paralleled in his own way) the defining terms of landscape itself. . . .

     It is pretty clear that Cole regarded the urban proliferation of the Consummation as a pathological excrescence on the face of the Earth. The really interesting question is, at what level - social, political, cultural, religious or technical - did he believe this pathology to be rooted? Wallach and Truettner stress the political dimension: a warning, rooted in Classical Republican theory, against the "excesses of democracy", mob rule and Caesarism in Andrew Jackson's America. In a way, this re-iterates (though of course with much more scholarly depth) the reviewers of Cole's own time, who tended to focus on the question, "What does this work say about the prospects for our Republic?" (Cole was, among other things, a nationalist artist, and himself a formidable symbol of national pride, at least to the more culturally minded of his compatriots. This accounts, after all, for a large part of the fame he enjoyed in his lifetime.) But while I'm convinced that Cole did devote some of his attention to such political concerns, that is really only the most parochial side of this truly ecumenical artist. Ultimately, The Course of Empire is a religious work, but not a Christian one. Christianity is an explicitly human-centered religion, and in some ways even an egotistical one, fixated on the fate of the individual soul. But if The Course of Empire preaches anything, it preaches something more like the ancient Greek admonitions against hubris, the baneful excess of human ambition, against which the only defense is a scrupulous observance of the intrinsic limits of all things. To mention only one poignant sign of this lesson, Cole plays a fascinating game with his own signature in The Course of Empire. He works it into each of the first four scenes as an inscription on one or another of the stones, growing larger and more elaborately self-assertive in each successive view, until at last in the Destruction it flares out in grotesque and agitated lettering on the base of the colossal headless statue which dominates that composition - and then, among the ruins of the Desolation, it is nowhere to be found. I read this as one of Cole's more transparent allegories: against the rampant egotism which can infect all of us, even Christians and artists. . . . Such moralizing was often enough typical of Cole, and not always accomplished with the same finesse; but at its strongest his vision went much deeper than his Whiggish politics, and deeper than his Evangelical Christianity: to an apprehension of humanity as a species fully embedded in its natural matrix, which we may violate in our arrogance and egotism, but only at the risk of our own extinction.


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