Thomas Cole’s name does not gain instant recognition in Britain. In his adopted land of the United States, however, he is revered as the founder of American landscape artistry. A current exhibition at the National Gallery, Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire (until October 7), attempts to make the case in his favour. By and large, it succeeds.
Born in Bolton in 1801, Cole received early training as an engraver and textile designer. This served him well when the family emigrated to America in 1818. Cole was self-taught as a painter until the age of 22, when he moved to Philadelphia for classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, his only formal training. He travelled in Europe during his late 20s and early 30s before returning to the US, where he remained until dying suddenly in 1848.
The influence of Claude, Constable and Turner on Cole’s work is strong, and particularly evident when, as here, their paintings are presented alongside his own. One can see the direct influence of Constable’s Hadleigh Castle on Cole’s View near Tivoli (Morning), the interplay of light and shadow being the common feature of both. Similarly, in Cole’s greatest mature piece, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts after a Thunderstorm (aka The Oxbow), the great shafts of light cast across the painting’s fore- and middle-ground are in direct imitation of Turner’s Ulysses deriding Polyphemus.
There is, if anything, too much of other artists’ work in this exhibition. Though it helps to be aware of an artist’s influences, too great a comparison can detract from his originality. That danger is, thankfully, avoided by the latter part of the exhibition, comprised almost entirely of works by Cole.
We see in his early pieces, particularly The Garden of Eden and Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans”, Cole’s fascination with the primordial, the insignificance of man when set against nature. This reaches its apogee in his series The Course of Empire. Its five paintings depict the rise and fall of a metropolis. Particularly effective is the final work, Desolation, in which the rubble and debris of a fallen people are overtaken by nature and the landscape returns to its original state.
Having criticised the curator for including too much by other artists, I must however praise the inclusion of works by Cole’s pupil Frederic Edwin Church. The startling realism and skill of pieces such as Above the Clouds at Sunrise, with its truly masterful tonal palette, was a joy to discover.
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