An exhibition of paintings by Thomas Cole and his contemporaries at the Metropolitan Museum situates the early-19th-century American painter in a moment of high anxiety — about the natural world and the nascent American Republic — not dissimilar to our own. Cole was the father of American landscape painting and often cited as the founder of the Hudson River School, though he played little role in organizing what was a loose collection of painters who followed him through the middle of the 19th century. Often, his work is remembered as pretty, appealing, occasionally sublime and sometimes a bit sentimental (Washingtonians who know the second of his "Voyage of Life" cycles at the National Gallery of Art may think of him primarily as a spinner of romantic cotton candy).
But "Thomas Cole's Journey: Atlantic Crossings" connects some of Cole's greatest work to his childhood in an industrial part of England, where workers were being displaced by automation and the landscape despoiled by railroads, factories and other dark satanic mills. He grew up amid the rebellious Luddite movement, and attended a school that, from his biographer's descriptions, sounds like one of Dickens's juvenile penal colonies. He didn't arrive in the United States until he was 17, and he returned to England after his first flush of success to survey the work of established figures such as John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. He spent time in Italy improving his technical skills and painting the landscape, a period he remembered with fondness. He returned to the United States, became a citizen and is remembered as the quintessential American painter, but he wasn't temperamentally suited for the country that awaited him, torn apart by the rough and tumble of Jacksonian democracy.
By focusing on two major works, one a cycle of five paintings called "The Course of Empire" (1833-1836) and the other an ambitious landscape called "View From Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm — the Oxbow" (1836), the curators argue that Cole was deeply uneasy about his adopted country, seeing it as prone to greed, self-interest and expansionism, with dire consequences for the primeval forests and virgin land. "The Course of Empire," commissioned for a wealthy dry-goods merchant to decorate his New York City townhouse, shows an imaginary civilization first in its "savage" state, then as an Arcadian idyll, followed by its apex of luxury and power, its destruction, and finally a new landscape of ruins and emptiness. The United States, Cole believed, was sliding perilously from Chapter 2 to Chapter 3, from the quiet dignity of Arcadia into the pomp and decadence of imperial power.
The other key work, known as the Oxbow, shows a placid river in Massachusetts, curving sharply around a spit of land, with thick, unmolested forests on one side of the canvas, and a landscape of farms, fields and small houses on the other. The sharp division in the picture, roughly corresponding to east and west on a map, dramatizes the march of cultivation and the loss of wilderness. It was also painted six years after the country passed the consummately evil Indian Removal Act of 1830, a little more than a decade after the opening of the Erie Canal, and in the first great age of American railroad building.
The painter depicted himself as a small, dapper figure, in the lower margin of the picture, looking out at the viewer, not at the landscape he is supposedly limning. That detail, and the curious question-mark shape of the river, leads curator Tim Barringer (who organized the show with co-curator Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser) to sum up Cole's work in a query put directly to the American people: "Is it possible to balance the pursuit of wealth with the preservation of the God-given wilderness, to temper the material with the spiritual, industry with art?"
That question is connected to a larger, more ominous one: If the answer is no, as surely it seems to have been, can the United States avoid the cycle of rise and ruin the artist depicted in "The Course of Empire"?
So Thomas Cole is certainly a more complicated and darker artist than we often assume him to be. Part of the problem is the Hudson River School artists who followed him, who to different degrees embraced the "progress" Cole feared, and moved West to where the landscape still seemed fresh and free of the strain of cultivation. For them, the sublime was intact, or at least they represented it that way. And today we project their vision of unsullied vistas back onto the more nuanced anxieties of Cole.
But it would be a mistake to think of Cole as an environmentalist in any contemporary sense. As this exhibition demonstrates but doesn't underscore, his view of nature was fundamentally romantic, as was his pessimism about the sustenance of republican government. His cycles-of-civilization conceit was just that, a historically received way of thinking about the world that he projected onto his sense of America. In paintings of the Catskills he made late in his too-short life (he died 1848 at age 47), one senses that he was most pained by the loss of his personal landscape, his preferred places to commune with nature, his internalized fantasy of the Arcadian golden moment. Politically, he was in some ways reactionary: "It appears to me that the moral principle of the nation is much lower than formerly," he lamented, as power shifted from the elite republican class of the revolutionary years to the rabble of the city mobs.
Even his vision of environmental destruction seems anodyne. The last of the five empire paintings is "Desolation," which is a Byronic landscape of picturesque ruins and encroaching greenery, ready for a solitary walker. The settled and cultivated land seen in the "east" half of his Oxbow painting doesn't seem terribly ominous by contemporary standards. To see the real environmental damage that was already underway, look to the photographs made in the 1850s that were on view in the National Gallery's "East of the Mississippi" exhibition last spring: This is the barren, haphazard landscape of wanton greed that Cole could never really bring himself to paint.
There is a peculiarly American sense of regret about the world that one finds fully developed in Cole. It is a sense of sadness and futility that work together to appease the conscience: Something beautiful is being lost and we can do nothing about it. Having that feeling seems somehow to absolve you for your passivity, your acceptance of the destruction. This is how Americans made peace with the loss of native people and cultures (Cole never rises above making their genocide seem picturesque) during the same years that Cole was fretting about the loss of unsullied green places. Cole could be a great artist, but as a voice for his age, he raised little more than a genteel whimper of loss.
Thomas Cole's Journey: Atlantic Crossings is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through May 13. For more information, visit metmuseum.org.