These days, it’s standard behaviour when we go abroad to record the sights we see for posterity, whether as selfies or humblebrag posts on Instagram. Thomas Cole was born more than 200 years ago, and if it’s a stretch to see him as a father of that tradition, he was certainly an artist preoccupied with portraying a foreign landscape in its most luminous light.
Cole, a brilliant impressionist painter who was born in Lancashire, emigrated to the US as a teenager, at a time when the country was in its infancy and the west was still to be won. Within a few years of his arrival, he had become a founding figure in what became known as the Hudson River School, using art to depict a country expanding into the future at any cost. His works – Niagara Falls reimagined to the time before tourism arrived, or a bucolic, bountiful Garden of Eden, inspired by the New Hampshire scenery – are mesmerising tributes to the majesty and wonder of the natural world.
Not even 50 when he died, he left behind a vast and highly-regarded body of work. Today, he is remembered as one of the most important artists who documented America in the 19th century.
‘Eden to Empire’, the exhibition at the National Gallery, brings Cole’s work back to his birth country. On display are a number of his vast, Turner-esque panoramas, many of them infused with biblical imagery and symbolism, among them ‘The Oxbow’, his grand vision for American society. The theme running through his work is of nature disappearing thanks to of the merciless onslaught of progress and industry.
The exhibition is chronological; we see scenes from the cotton mills Cole fled as a youth, then the wilderness landscapes he encountered across the Atlantic. Highlighting his provenance, the show also makes much of his return to Europe, when he visited Italy and England to study the work of the old masters (and, we are told, visited the then newborn National Gallery). To emphasise just how much this American icon was influenced by European traditions, a couple of Constables and Turners are included.
The showpiece is his ‘Course of Empire’ series; five epic paintings from the 1830s that chart the rise and fall of a nation. Steeped in allegory and harking back to ancient civilisations, they go from The Savage State as the day rises, to Consummation and Desolation as the light fades. In the early scenes man is at one with his surroundings, coexisting rather than destroying. In The Arcadian or Pastoral State, the scene is placid and pleasant, with women pictured in Grecian dress, children playing and lambs frolicking.
But by the third painting – Consummation – nature has been suppressed, and Cole is hardly subtle as to the consequences of this. We see an imperial city bathed in blood red, its residents grotesque in their enjoyment of luxury and waste. This is followed by Destruction, as biblical as you’d expect, before finally Desolation – a silent, ruined city returning to nature; everything smashed to pieces. Completed during the presidency of Andrew Jackson at a time of American expansion, and understood as a critique of Jackson’s hunger for dominance, it doesn’t take much to see why this exhibition has been staged now; the only question is where in this series Cole would think we are today.
This exhibition is clearly in part an attempt to reclaim Cole for ourselves. But what it really shows is that Cole was not looking back to the Old World from the New, but grasping desperately for one that no longer existed. Within a decade of his death America would be torn apart by the Civil War; the world he mourned the fading of is today long gone. The greatest irony is that Cole today is painter associated with the American Dream, even as he was a prophet against its worst excesses.
Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire is on at the National Gallery until 7 October 2018