Articles From the September 1994 Unification News


Thomas Cole and the Spiritual View of Life

by Phillips

It is impossible to talk about the history of American art without mentioning the name of Thomas Cole. His paintings are the subject of an exhibition entitled "Thomas Cole, Landscape into History" which just closed at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC and will travel to Hartford, Connecticut, and New York City. Seventy paintings are exhibited and it is the largest retrospective of his works since a memorial exhibition just after his death in 1848.

Thomas Cole was born in England in 1801, and apprenticed to an engraver of designs in a calico print factory. His family moved to the United States in 1818 and he continued to work as a designer until 1821, when he began to focus on making landscapes and portrait paintings. In 1825 he moved to New York City and in 1836 settled in the Catskill Mountains with his wife. He made two trips to Europe during his adult life.

Along with fellow landscape-painter Asher B. Durand, Thomas Cole is considered a founder of the Hudson River School. This designation does not refer to a physical school of any kind, but to a group of artists, teachers, students and associates whose work was originally centered on the Hudson River Valley and who eventually produced landscapes of three continents. Cole had only one student, Frederick Church, but a student whose work is considered some of the best and most influential landscape painting in American art history. The artists Albert Bierstadt and George Innes were also artists of this Hudson River tradition.

Although Cole may not have been the greatest of artists in terms of technique, he inspires serious thinking about the purpose of art and how artists can use their abilities to move the human spirit. The show begins with numerous landscapes, mostly of American wilderness scenes, and included among these is one of his landscape masterpieces, "Scene from the Ox-Bow." This painting depicts a Massachusetts scene from high up on a hilltop looking over a pastoral landscape, a storm having just passed. In the very bottom of the painting, the artist has placed himself in the painting standing in front of his easel and looking over his shoulder out at the viewers, showing him to be working right in the very nature that he loved so much. Although Cole wrote much about how he was dismayed by the destruction of nature as his fellow citizens cut down more of the wilderness, he shows us here a settled land, developed by family farms, that seems to have the artist's approval.

Many of Cole's paintings have historical and religious themes, and "Expulsion from the Garden of Eden" gives a very clear idea of how Cole used the elements of the landscape to represent the ideas of good and evil. The right half of the canvas, representing Eden, is beautiful and tranquil, with the sun shining brightly. The left half, outside of the Garden, is dark and stormy, with a wolf devouring a stag and a volcano erupting. This idea of using landscape elements to express moral ideas is a recurrent theme in Cole's paintings.

The most large-scale examples of Cole's desire to teach and enlighten his audience are found in the two multi-canvas series of paintings "The Course of Empire" and "The Voyage of Life." The five paintings in "The Course of Empire" are "The Savage State," "The Pastoral State," "Consummation", "Destruction" and "Desolation". It is an imaginary depiction of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire in five scenes. Viewing these five paintings all together on one large wall is very powerful. There is no question that he wished to impress on Americans that their country would face the same ruinous fate as Rome, if it followed the same social and political course. It's likely that many of his fellow countrymen took it as a challenge that their country would not have to suffer the same destruction as earlier civilizations, since they could create a better society.

"The Voyage of Life" has a much more personal message and consists of four paintings entitled "Childhood", "Youth", "Manhood" and "Old Age." These four scenes depict a man growing through these four stages of life in a small boat on a river. In "Childhood" a baby is playing in the boat with a guardian spirit or angel steering the boat on its way. The guardian spirit waves farewell in "Youth" as the boy takes over the rudder himself and steers the boat towards a castle he sees formed by clouds in the sky. In "Manhood" the angel is very far away in the clouds and the sky has become very dark and stormy. The boat appears to be rushing towards some very rough rapids, the rudder has been broken, and the adult figure in the boat has his hands clasped in serious prayer. The series ends in "Old Age" with a stunning bright light shining through the dark clouds and the guardian angel pointing up to the light as the final destination for the now old man in the boat.

Cole painted this series twice, once for a commission and once for himself. The "Voyage of Life" was exhibited only once during Cole's lifetime but it became very popular after his death due to the efforts of James Smillie, who was commissioned to do a set of engravings of the images. Many of these prints were sold and they became a part of the popular culture of the mid-19th century, adorning the walls of numerous American drawing rooms.

The message contained in these images is that life is a journey, attended to by spiritual forces and successfully navigated by faith in God and time spent in prayer. Cole was probably strongly influenced by John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," one of the most popular books of his day. It is a powerful commentary on our time that finding similar messages in our popular culture is very difficult.

Matthew Baigell, in his book "Thomas Cole, wrote: "Far from being only a solitary wanderer in search of his own spiritual improvement, Cole really was part of a broad conservative movement that tried to give a responsible moral direction and leadership to the American democratic experiment." This is a fitting epitaph to an important American visionary. The exhibition ran at the National Museum of American Art from March through August 1994, travels to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut from Sept. 11 to Dec. 4, 1994 and then to New York City in January 1995.


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