Wednesday 18 April 2018

The Narrative Paintings of Thomas Cole

In the decades prior to the creation of film, the unveiling of large-scale paintings took the place of mass entertainment media events. Landscape subjects were the most popular, so when someone like Frederic Edwin Church premiered a new painting of South America, it was with the requisite fanfare in salons fully bedecked in potted palms, velvet drapes, complimentary artifacts, live musical performances and special effects lighting, all to provide a sense of a window into a world far away from that of attendees. Church was a member of the Hudson River School of painters and only student of school founder Thomas Cole. Born in England, Cole moved to the United States and was further moved by the beauty of the Hudson River. In response he formed an artistic collective based in representational naturalism, Romanticism and luminism, or the manipulation of lighting effects.

The Heart of the Andes by Frederic Edwin Church (1859)

Cole did revel in landscape work, but he also sought to combine these epic paintings with narrative and metaphorical themes. The foremost of these is a five-painting series entitled The Course of Empire. Created between 1833 and 1836, these masterworks chart the course of a classical civilization from it's birth to its decay, reflecting the philosophical ideals of the Hudson River School, Romanticism, and the still-young American nation.

Central to each painting is a high bluff, upon which balances a gigantic boulder, symbolic of Earth's continuity and immutability. Each painting in the sequence takes place at a different, and also symbolic, time of day. The first painting, dubbed The Savage State, takes place at dawn in the misty aeons past when humanity were nomadic tribes. In the brightness of morning, The Agrarian, or Pastoral State shows the earliest type of civilization. Agrarianism was considered, at the time, to be the noblest of civilizations, before momentum, ennui and vice corrupts it. The Consummation of Empire occurs at noon, with a decadent culture celebrating its military and cultural victories. This cannot last, however, and darkness begins to fall in the period of Destruction. Finally, the moon rises over the ruins of Desolation.

In his newspaper advertisements for the series, Cole drew from Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, written from 1812-1818. In particular, he cited the following stanzas as the core theme of the series:
There is the moral of all human tales;
'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory - when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption - barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast
Hath but one page...

The Savage State

The Arcadian, or Pastoral State

The Consummation of Empire



After The Course of Empire, Cole dialed it back to a pair of two-painting works. In The Past and The Present, painted in 1838, the former illustrates the life of the Middle Ages of collective nostalgia, a halcyon day of knights, jousting, ladies and picturesque castles. The latter illustrates the even more romantic, sublime ruins of the castle, its former jousting fields overgrown and pastured by shepherds.  

The Past

The Present

The second set is The Departure and The Return, painted in 1837. In these, we see the knights errant as they march off to campaign from their castle - the folly of man - and as they return, bowed head, to the cathedral for absolution.

The Departure

The Return

His second great series after The Course of Empire, Thomas Cole's The Voyage of Life takes a more intimate, personal approach. Rather than the totality of a civilization's progress and decline, he looks at the life of a single man from childhood through old age. The series, painted in 1842, begins with childhood, emerging from the darkness of the womb into a morning bright and full of promise. Then comes youth, when the young man begins to steer his craft for himself, pursuing his castles in the sky. Darkness and storms assault adulthood, where the only recourse is prayer and trust in God. Then finally comes the twilight of old age, when angels guide the soul on to its eternal home. 




Old Age

Thomas Cole's final series, left unfinished, was grounded even more clearly in his religious convictions. Following his marriage in 1836, Cole began attending his local Episcopal church. In 1844, he was officially baptized, reflecting how his heart, spirit and mind had been entranced by his newfound religious faith. Hinted at in his prior works, The Cross and the World was to be his religious masterwork. It was, unfortunately, suspended by his untimely death in 1848. The series was to outline the voyage of two travelers: one en route to Heaven, the other to the other place. Many themes and motifs recur through both The Cross and the World and The Voyage of Life, suggesting the extent to which these are not merely allegorical of life and spirituality but of Cole's own life and spirituality. All that we have of his would-be series are four rough sketches, as we see them here. 

The first study shows the beginning of the journey, where the Pilgrims of the Cross and the World go their separate paths, the landscape around them and ahead not looking very different. The Pilgrim of the Cross, however, seems to be embarking on a path of greater extremes. On the one hand the road appears to be rockier and darker, yet on the other the reward of holy light shining from the Cross seems to be greater than the vague luminousity of the Pilgrim of the World's path. The second study shows the Pilgrim of the Cross at the end of his journey, the world around him barren and desolate but the Cross still shining brightly. Angels await to usher him into the glories of the Divine Presence. Meanwhile, the third study shows the Pilgrim of the World as he takes a pleasure stroll through a beautiful, Arcadian forest, with his own evanescent castles in the sky fixed firmly before him. Nevertheless, the final study shows that the Pilgrim of the World also arrives at the desolates wastes of life's end, but with no Divine hope. His castles are only toppled ruins. Instead of Holy Light, there is only further vast desolation.  

The Cross and the World (Study)

The Pilgrim of the Cross at the End of His Journey (Study)

The Pilgrim of the World on His Journey (Study)

The Pilgrim of the World at the End of His Journey (Study)

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