He was not a particularly remarkable painter. There is no dazzling brushstroke or consummate gesture. They are paintings that get the job done and punch the clock. But Thomas Cole is arguably where American art begins.
Born in England in 1801 Cole came to Ohio with his parents when it was still the frontier. He cut his teeth as a third string itinerant portrait painter wandering the raw mid-west. It was only when he came to New York in his mid twenties that he began painting the landscapes that became a part of art history.
Cole was one of the founding members of the Hudson River School, the first true movement in American art. Though native, it was a movement that had its reflection in Europe: in Romanticism and a search for the sublime, which had great realization in the works of J.W. Turner and John Constable in his native England, Caspar David Friedrich in Germany and the School of Fontainebleau in France. But in Europe Romanticism gave way to the great 19th century battles of the Impressionists and the Proto-Modernists. In the United States it coupled with a sort of deadpan Realism, a need to document the tectonic shift from wilderness to industry; it acquired an urgency that resonated deeply and carried farther into the conscience and self-definition of the young nation.
Cole’s paintings are a fascinating and curiously American hybrid of observational realism, romantic interpretation, ethical narrative, Christian allegory, nostalgic sentimentality and futurist fantasy. From the strands intermingled in Cole’s paintings come a truly heterogeneous crosscut of things to come. Everything from the stoic wilderness narratives of Winslow Homer all the way to the heroic monumentality of Robert Smithson and Richard Serra. Back again to the tourist-friendly landscapes churned out in Santa Fe and the magical mall paintings of Thomas Kincaid. There are even echoes that reach into mediums that were beyond comprehension when Cole was alive, the big canvas narratives of Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas, and the extraordinary neo-romantic environments of contemporary gaming.
In his great narrative cycle ‘The Course of Empire’ at the New York historical society, all those progeny are in there, lurking in his shot across the bow of an adolescent America. A set of five, same-size canvases, titled from left to right as hung: ‘The Savage State,’ ‘The Arcadian State,’ ‘The Consummation of Empire,’ ‘Destruction,’ and ‘Desolation.’ Together they describe an imaginary landscape through its transition from a ‘wild’ environment into an idyllic countryside, then to a great seat of imperial power and finally to decadence, decline and ruin. The landscape itself is an amalgam of the Hudson River Valley and The Lake District in England. The architecture of narration starts out with Native American wigwams, moves on to Stonehenge and winds up with a long, oversized riff on the Rome of the Caesars. They are the kind of paintings you can read like a novel. And what a novel: these paintings were made in the mid eighteen-thirties, for an audience that saw themselves as existing somewhere between the Arcadian state and the consummation of empire, the rest of the narrative looming in the future as a vague cautionary tale. Now 180 odd years later we’ve moved up the cycle and the paintings have the chilling effect of looking at a sandglass that has mostly run out. They just sit there by the side of the park, in a museum few people bother with, quietly marking the passage of the great experiment we call home. What’s not to like?
Fifteen years ago I started a series of large-scale paintings about the American landscape. The first in this series was a wallpaper mural of Monument Valley. Over the years I took up many variations on the theme, from suburban housing developments to early Hollywood to a fantasy of Los Angeles without gravity. As a representational painter in the 21st century my relation to contemporary art is asymmetric at best but my relation to my forebears is more direct than most of my compatriots. So the many influences on this body of work sit on the surface, like family genes – mother’s eyes and grandfather’s hair – nineteenth century scenic wallpaper, cyclorama painting, Italian renascence frescos. It is bringing these influences into contemporary relevance that, to a great degree, defines its success as an artistic venture. And here the malleable and open-ended work of Thomas Cole is always at the back, holding it together like a spine.
One of the reasons Cole is so open to reimagining and interpretation is precisely because he is not a great painter. There is something in a flawed but brilliant artist that is like an unfinished sentence: it is a hand-written invitation to fill in the blanks.
And so I have found that I have been drawn in with amused delight to the eccentric and deeply American mashup that is Thomas Cole. To a self-taught itinerant painter who made it his project to describe not only the physicality, but also the emotional and social metaphor of the landscape at the onset of one of the greatest moments of transformation in the existence of this planet– a transformation that is continuing in reality and consequence to this day, and that I as an artist living in the cannon blast of this moment struggle to comprehend and record. The work of Thomas Cole provides me –a fellow traveller somewhat farther down the road—a little help along the way.