Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire, and Ed Ruscha: Course of Empire
National Gallery, London
11 June – 7 October, 2018
Review by Rowland Bagnall
On May 8, 1835, Thomas Cole delivered an early version of his ‘Essay on American Scenery’ to the Lyceum Society in New York. In the essay, Cole urges the significance of the American landscape, “an almost illimitable subject” of “overflowing richness”, warning against the cost of national expansion. “I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away,” he writes; “another generation will behold spots, now rife with beauty, desecrated by what is called improvement”. Having delivered the essay, which would go on to be published in The American Magazine the following year, Cole embarked on a sketching trip to the Catskill Mountains, returning to the landscape that appeared so often in his paintings. Writing in his diary on July 6, he reflects upon the experience of the artist in America:
The painter of American scenery has indeed privileges superior to any other; all nature here is new to Art. No Tivoli’s[,] Terni’s [or] Mount Blanc’s […] hackneyed & worn by the daily pencils of hundreds, but virgin forests, lakes & waterfalls feast his eye with new delights […] because they had been preserved [and] untouched from the time of creation[.]
For Cole, the uniqueness of the American landscape is that it had yet to be expressed, an unspoiled Garden of Eden which rivals, maybe even surpasses) the natural scenery of Europe. Cole’s influence in establishing a dedicated movement of American landscape painting forms the subject of a new exhibition at London’s National Gallery, examining the political and environmental legacy of his work alongside several paintings from the National Gallery’s own collection, many of which Cole saw when he visited the Gallery in 1829, just five years after it was founded.
Cole went to America from England in 1818. Born in Bolton at the turn of the century, the exhibition quickly establishes the imagery of an industrialised Britain, emphasising Cole’s early exposure to the destructive powers industrial progression has on the natural landscape. Philip James de Loutherbourg’s ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’ (1801) – the year of Cole’s birth – presents a striking image of the Bedlam Furnaces at Ironbridge, a fiery hellscape which came to symbolise the birth of the Industrial Revolution in England.
Looking at some of Cole’s earliest American landscape paintings, made after his move to New York from Philadelphia in 1825, the contrast is arresting. The Edenic quality of his scenery is hard to miss. There’s a quiet stillness to paintings like ‘View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains’ (1827), in which the landscapes seem both fresh and undisturbed; not only are they new to Cole – and “new to Art”, as he writes in his journal – but they seem somehow newly created, as if the painting’s mists were rising from a just-finished topography. This is a connection Cole makes more explicitly in The Garden of Eden (1928), inspired by the work of English sublime painter, John Martin, whom he would later be accused of plagiarizing. Cole’s Eden – almost too perfect, literally sur-real, an implacable strangeness to the light and air – is spectacularly huge, dwarfing Adam and Eve in a sublime American landscape which seems to anticipate Albert Bierstadt’s later paintings of the Sierra Nevada. As if to drive the metaphor home, a giant peak looms at the centre of the painting, most likely borrowed from Cole’s recent trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire: Adam and Eve are in New England.
Already a great admirer of the European masters Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, Cole encountered new ways of expressing the landscape when he visited England in 1829. The exhibition draws particular attention to the vortices of Turner’s ‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps’ (1812), the canvas scored with diagonal lines, pulled in several directions at once by the extremes of light and dark, matter and space, clarity and ambiguity, and Constable’s ‘Hadleigh Castle’ (c.1828 - 1829), in which the near-impasto highlights cause the scene to shimmer as the painting’s light breaks through the clouds. From Constable, Cole also learned the use of oil sketches, rapidly capturing the impressions of a landscape for later use in studio compositions. The exhibition includes some excellent sketches of Constable’s, holding captive the fleetingness of light and weather; their influence on Cole is clear in ‘Stormy Landscape’ (1832), hanging in the next room, and in his ‘Tomb of General Brock’ (1830), with its contrasting light and shadow, falling rains and empty space.
Continuing to Italy, where he enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence in 1831, before moving south to Rome and Naples the following year, Cole produced several European landscapes, which remained popular on the American market. Looking at the selection of his Italian paintings on display, however, there’s something unremarkable about them. For instance ‘View of Florence from San Minato’ (1837), is technically accomplished, but the buildings feel flat and undynamic, and the figures in the foreground are verging on cartoonish. Following the river out to the horizon, however, where the plains beneath the mountains suddenly compress into a vague far-off space and the mountains themselves begin to lose distinction, the white sun nearly setting behind them, faintly washing-out into a gradient of pale sky, Cole’s greatness as a painter unexpectedly solidifies. This is a painting of two halves, divided along a clear, dark horizontal line that runs across its centre. With a suggestion of infinity, a landscape that seems “almost illimitable”, as Cole writes in his ‘Essay’, the dissolving scenery of this picture appears, to me at least, to contain something not of Europe, but America, an “overflowing richness” spilling over in the distance, as if Cole is imagining the mountains he has left back home.
Cole is at his very best when painting in America, where his pictures are determined by this sense of the illimitable, celebrating the beauty of a particular landscape – the Catskills, for example, or the Adirondacks – while also hinting at a slim suggestion of the boundless and the infinite. Becoming a United States citizen in 1834, his mission to expound the importance of the American landscape coheres in The Course of Empire (1834 - 1836), an allegorical cycle of five paintings, charting the development of a fictional civilization from its birth to its collapse.
The Course of Empire’s cinematic sweep, at times Shakespearean in its theatricality, justifiably forms the centre-piece of the National’s exhibition, with echoes of ‘Julius Caesar’ (c.1599), in its veiled criticism of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, not to mention the influence of Turner’s diptych of the ‘Carthaginian Empire’ (1815 - 1817), and the brimming chaos of John Martin’s ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ (c.1821), on display in the opening room. The series’ final panel, ‘Desolation’ (1836), implies the ultimate prevailing of nature over civilization, a calm, moonlit scene in which the broken columns of the city are engulfed by vegetation.
Though Cole’s imaginative cycles were never as well received as his landscapes during his lifetime, The Course of Empire has influenced several modern and contemporary artists. Alexis Rockman’s painting, ‘Manifest Destiny’ (2004), for instance, depicts a futuristic vision of Brooklyn, submerged by the effects of climate change, a glowing sun illuminating everything with eerie phosphorescent light. More overtly, perhaps, Ed Ruscha’s suite of ten paintings, ‘Course of Empire’ (1992, 2003 - 2005), presents two sets of five canvases, each depicting a series of box-like industrial buildings, on display as a companion to Cole’s work. The first sequence, painted in muted monochromatic greys, shows a set of ‘Blue Collar’ buildings, branded with the block-text of their functionality – ‘TIRES’, ‘TRADE SCHOOL’, ‘TECH-CHEM’ – reflecting, to borrow a phrase from the American curator Ralph Rugoff, “a society of unredeemable banality”. Thirteen years later, Ruscha painted a second series, and displayed all ten paintings at the 2005 Venice Biennale. The updated paintings show an accelerated stage of the buildings’ futures, exchanging the monochrome – like Dorothy and Toto’s arrival into vivid Technicolor nineteen minutes into ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939) – for pastel skies and stone-washed walls, the buildings manufacturing swapped in for fast food joints, non-descript retail outlets and ambiguous studio space. As apocalyptically red skies gather over ‘The Old Tech-Chem Building’ (2003), we cannot help but wonder what a third series might show.
Returning to Cole, it’s interesting to think of why his paintings have appeared now. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s a tendency to present him as a kind of proto-environmentalist, which I can’t decide whether to find appropriate or not. Of course, Cole’s insistence on the importance of our natural scenery is resonant today, but I’m not sure this is only what his paintings have to say us now.
Certainly, it’s difficult to overlook that the ‘Essay on American Scenery’ appeared in print in the same year as Emerson’s ‘Nature’, in which he outlines the core principles of his transcendental philosophy, advancing many of the same ideas as Cole in the process, not least the moral and spiritual value of cultivating an aesthetic relationship with the natural world. Moreover, Cole’s founding of the Hudson River School, near-enough single-handedly inspiring a generation of American landscape painters (including Frederic Edwin Church, Asher B. Durand, George Inness and Albert Bierstadt) goes some way to affirming the single-mindedness of his environmental advocacy. In some ways it’s remarkable to think that Cole’s work predates not only Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ (1854), that most-famous of American environmental manifestos, but also the designation of America’s first national parks.
Cole’s fears for the American environment under Jackson are apparent in ‘The Oxbow’ (1836), a panoramic composition of the Connecticut River after a thunderstorm. The painting borrows the looming clouds of Turner’s ‘Snow Storm’, dividing the picture along a diagonal plain as if we were looking at two separate views stitched together: to the left, a lush, vegetative landscape, imbued with destructive force; to the right, cultivated agricultural fields and the gently rising smoke of settlement. Hidden in the middle of the painting is a miniature self-portrait: Cole caught between these two extremes. This is a painting of transition, showing the landscape’s shift from one state to the next. It’s here, I think, that Cole’s contemporary relevance is felt. It isn’t only his concerns for the environment which resonate, but the experience of living through a period of collectively-felt transition, of palpable, uncertain change, of feeling the acute and near-inevitable threat of loss. “[S]uch is the road society has to travel,” Cole ends the ‘Essay on American Scenery’: “it may lead to refinement in the end, but the traveller who sees the place of rest close at hand, dislikes the road that has so many unnecessary windings”.