Thomas Cole & the Birth of American Landscape
Above is just the background from one of my favorite early 19th century painters, Thomas Cole (1801- 1848). With very little professional training, Cole's paintings blazed a trail with his wholehearted embrace of what was to the European settlers (Cole himself was born in England) a wildly unknown continent. Cole made something new.
Through September 23, 2012, the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme Connecticut has an exchange exhibition from the Albany Institute of History and Art. It explores the work and ideas of the first original movement in American art history, the Hudson River School. A few days ago I ran across an interview with Amy Kurtz Lansing, the Curator at the Florence Griswold Museum. I've always felt this almost 200 year old group of artists was pivotal in forming how Americans think and feel about themselves. Kurtz Lansing deftly puts her finger on a key role their work played in our imaginations:
"Before the Hudson River School, everybody had the idea that history was something that only Europe had. They looked at America and at nature and thought, it's kind of this raw stuff that's menacing and dangerous," Kurtz Lansing says. "They didn't realize there is great history - this kind of natural history - that is represented by our landscape. The Hudson River School painters gave Americans a way to recognize that, to appreciate what was grand and beautiful about nature here."
Cole would write about the landscape he found along New York's Hudson River as being like a "new Eden." And he meant his paintings to celebrate a chance for a new beginning (perhaps free from Europe's wars, poverty, and discrimination).
In our time of looming ecological degradation, paintings like Cole's take on a new significance- reminding us the earth and ourselves are both parts of the same living system. Those who think landscape imagery is a thing of the past are missing an importatn point. Good art has a way of focusing people's attention for them. Our future is bound up with our earth's future. We'd better start paying attention. Our need for incisive and inventive artists today to tackle the landscape as a theme is undiminished. Good landscape painting tells us in no uncertain terms "Earth Matters!"
There is a wonderful 16 minute video on Thomas Cole and the development of the Hudson River School on the website of Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. Here is the link.
Cole's old home and studio in the Catskill Mountains of New York State were fortunately saved from ruin, restored as a National Historic Site, and opened to the public in 2001 on Cole's birthday. It looks just like my studio (just kidding). After watching the video linked to above, I moved a pilgrimage to visit Cedar Grove to near the top of my "to do" list.
With my own painting, I owe a lot to Cole and those who followed him. One of the things that has always struck me about our earth and the heavens is that if you really look, you realize they are a lot more weird than how we usually conceive of them. There's always a tendency to try to shove things into convenient boxes, label them, and put them on the shelf. And it's possible to see a landscape anywhere you go that, maybe because the light is wrong or because you're viewing it from the wrong vantage point, that genuinely offers you nothing unexpected. And into the mental box it goes without a protest.
Cole wasn't like that. He kept his eyes wide open to the surprising and even fantastical sides of nature.
At his best, he can be counted on to show you something you'd never expect. To me that's at the heart of being a real artist.
Here is Mountain Sunrise from 1826, early in his career.,
Once you move into the middle spaces and the far distance, Cole's genius really starts to take over. He creates massive volumes, sets up a compelling sense of movement, and bathes the whole thing in a delicious dancing atmosphere. The far distance in a Cole painting is almost always remarkable. He can be both dramatic and amazingly sensitive.
What caught my eye when I first discovered Cole and the other Hudson River School painters was their unabashed delight in the drama of nature. They gave me permission to take far more seriously the excitement I felt on a personal level with the natural world. It could be the basis of a life in painting.
Below is my oil Equinox, 30 x 45", 2008, probably one of my more openly Hudson River influenced pieces.
And another is my The Voyage of Memory, oil , 38 x 38", 2008 (my choice of title was a tip of the hat to Cole's wonderful four panel series The Voyage of Life, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington).