The Skies Have It: Thomas Cole Paints to Protect Nature

Cole’s 1936 panoramic masterpiece The Oxbow – a call to preserve the rapidly disappearing American wilderness. Collection: The Met

Awestruck by the magnificence of nature, romantic painter Thomas Cole set out to create visions so powerful that they would convince development-obsessed American to preserve landscapes and vistas for future generations.

Although the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition chronicles his artistic journey, Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings, on view through May 13, the subtext of the show is how he leveraged the romantic thrill of nature for a higher purpose.

Cole was battling pro-development sensibilities back then, in the same way environmentalists are fighting eco-battles today — 200 years after Cole started sketching upstate New York.

Detail from Turner’s 1829 Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus that Cole sketched in London. Collection: National Gallery

The exhibition sums up how British painters in the early 1800s were rebelling against the horrors of the Industrial Revolution, how Cole romanticized the drama views of nature, and then took the techniques that he learned on his trip to Europe to turn his painting into a call to action.

The most famous Cole works showcased at the Met – The Oxbow and The Course of Empire – are from New York City collections, but the curators have placed Cole’s artistic development into a global context by showing us the powerful Turners and Constables that actually inspired Cole on his Grand Tour of Europe in the 1820s and 1830s. Visitors get to experience them as he did.

Constable’s 1824-28 expressive oil sketch Rainstorm Over the Sea. Collection: Royal Academy

The presence of these landscape giants is exquisite – enormous masterworks with overpowering skies, majestic vistas, mythological allegories, and poignant ruins. The show also includes ethereal and dramatic cloud studies that Constable did out in the open air – works that inspired Cole to do the same.

Back in America, he founded the Hudson River school of painting – the first great art movement of the United States — and encouraged students to learn from nature. They certainly did, as shown by the dramatic landscape paintings by Chuch and Durand.

Take a look at all 76 paintings and studies in the exhibition on the Met’s website and see closeups of our favorite Cole, Turner, and Constable paintings in our Flickr album.

Cole’s 1832-1841 paint box used when he worked outdoors. Collection: Bronck Museum

The Met has given The Oxbow and The Course of Empire series positions of honor at the center of the show. To prepare these six paintings for their showcase, the conservation team did investigative work that uncovered some insights to Cole’s thinking (the video below shows what’s beneath the painted surface).

In the concluding section of the show, the curators point out that Cole’s students and followers didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the preservationist instincts of their teacher.

Cole’s romantic vision of nature fell out of fashion (for a while), replaced by big-sky and big-vista landscapes that elevated the “beauty” of building roads, harnessing nature, and seeding new towns and industries.

Industrial progress in 19th-century America was inevitable, but the experience of seeing Cole’s unspoiled vision of wilderness still shows visitors that there is value in keeping up the fight.

Take a look at the Met’s insightful film about Cole, his inspirations, and what it was like to paint in the Age of Jackson:

And for a glimpse into what the Met’s curatorial team found, watch this silent movie about about Cole’s thought process as he created his masterpiece:

If you miss this magnificent show, you can visit the room where it happened at Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York. More about that trip here.

Church’s 1849 Above the Clouds at Sunrise, a tribute to Cole

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