Berry-Hill Galleries, New York
Questroyal Fine Art, LLC, New York
Cedar Grove, The Thomas Cole National Historic Site, Catskill, New York, 2008–2009
Ellwood C. Parry III, report dated August 10, 2000.
Alan Wallach, “Imaginary Landscape with Towering Outcrop, ca. 1846–1847” (letter and wall text, Cedar Grove, The Thomas Cole National Historic Site, 2008).
Angels on the Mountain, ca. 1845–47, oil on board, 10 ¼ x 8 ½ inches. Private collection.
Study for Prometheus Bound, ca. 1846, oil on canvas, 30 ½ x 45 ¼ inches. On extended loan to Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, from the Catskill Public Library, Catskill, New York. Gift of Florence Cole Vincent as a memorial to her grandfather, the artist.
Salvator Rosa Sketching Banditti, ca. 1832–40, oil on panel, 7 x 9 ½ inches. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865, 62.268.
To Thomas Cole, progenitor of the Hudson River School, the element of the sublime—or that which “is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger [and] is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling”—unquestionably served a higher purpose than mere drama.[i] As related in 1848 in the last letter he was ever to pen, Cole articulated his belief that the sublime and spiritual were one, writing: “And above all, if [the artist] would attain that serene atmosphere of mind in which float the highest conceptions of the soul, in which the sublimest works have been produced, he must be possessed of a holy and reasonable faith.”[ii] According to Cole, the sublime could not exist without the spiritual, and that elusive visualization of the spiritual could only be expressed in the sublime.
Notably, Cole returned to the sublime during his final years when he was consumed with thoughts of the impending future. Drawn to paint themes that varied from his more peaceful Claudian compositions of the 1830s, Cole resumed his exploration of the thematic and formal elements found in one of his most-beloved muses: the Romantic and sublime landscapes of Salvator Rosa. Painting scenes such as the emotionally resonant Imaginary Landscape with Towering Outcrop, ca. 1846–1847, Cole engaged the sublime with new vigor, recapturing the thick paint application, dark hues, and motifs of his 1820s oeuvre, a period during which he was thought of as the “American Salvator.”[iii]
Given Cole’s return to the more sublime elements and inspiration of his earlier years, it is unsurprising that Imaginary Landscape features a number of compositional similarities to Rosa’s Romantic landscapes. Indeed, a convincing comparison can be made between Cole’s painting and the Italian master’s Bandits on a Rocky Coast (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).[iv] For instance, Imaginary Landscape shares the protruding cliff and rocky outcrops seen in Rosa’s painting, as well as its thick paint application, which gives a sculptural dimensionality to the landscape. Moreover, the figures presented along Rosa’s rocky shore at left are mirrored in Cole’s small character donning a brightly-colored red shirt to attract the viewer’s attention to the impending rockslide. Cole’s composition does transpose the repoussoir tree seen in Rosa’s composition to the left; however, both elements exude an unbound, natural energy through their blasted branches and decaying trunks, no doubt a result of some sublime stroke of lightening. Combined, these details realize Cole’s purpose in looking to Rosa when painting the sublime. Noting his Italian mentor, the American artist once wrote: “The finest scene in the world, one most fitted to awaken sensation of the sublime, is made up of minutest parts In confirmation of this doctrine I have only to appeal to Claude, G. Poussin, and Salvator Rosa.”[v]
Perhaps the most engaging comparison between Imaginary Landscape with Towering Outcrop and Rosa’s Bandits on a Rocky Coast, however, is their subject matter: a modern-day staging of man versus nature. As noted by Cole scholars Alan Wallach and Ellwood C. Parry, Imaginary Landscape shares the visual description of a rugged and dangerous wilderness as seen in the artist’s mythological themes. Yet instead of imposing a mythical figure, such as Prometheus, into the landscape, Cole chose to create what Wallach refers to as a “contemporary drama of his own invention” where “a huge bolder has come loose form the mountain and is about to crash into the lake.” Wallach further highlights the emotional intensity of the painting, writing: “What had been a moment before a scene of wilderness leisure is about to be violently transformed as the fisherman in the foreground points to the impending disaster and calls to the two men fishing from a boat in the distance. Here Cole paints a sublime and unpredictable nature.”
The importance of the contemporary in Cole and Rosa’s sublime works is immeasurable. As described by art historian David C. Miller, “The theatricality of the Burkean sublime—which emphasizes the terror of nature—produces a spectacle that robs the viewer of meditative distance.”[vi] Imaginary Landscape and Rosa’s works like Bandits on a Rocky Coast achieve this objective through their direct engagement of an environment and time known to the viewer. Both Cole and Rosa force their audience to recognize sublime nature in their contemporary world, amongst contemporary people, thereby placing the terror of natural disaster not in the past or the future, but in the present. This level of involvement demands the viewer acknowledge the role of the sublime in their life, and thus decreases the experienced “meditative distance,” making the resultant scenes all the more personal, awe-inspiring, and sublime.
Sublime paintings such as Imaginary Landscape with Towering Outcrop, ca. 1846–1847 shaped Cole’s lasting reputation as an American artist and innovator. Encouraged by the techniques and compositions of Salvator Rosa, Cole fashioned a new mode of landscape painting that applied to the American wilderness. When combined with the artist’s personal theories, paintings such as Imaginary Landscape transcended their physical state, attaining the perfect combination of imagination, detail, and the sublime. To an aging Cole, this quality was to be held above all else as these landscapes and the “undefiled works” painted there within conjured “associations of God the creator,” and cast the mind into the contemplation of all things eternal.[vii]
1. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (London: J. Dodsley, 1787), pp. 58–59.
2. Thomas Cole, letter to John M. Falconer, February 1, 1848; quoted in Louis Legrand Noble, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole, ed. Elliot S. Vesell (Hensonville, NY: Black Dome Press, 1964), p. 284.
3. Alan Wallach, “Thomas Cole: Landscape and the Course of Empire,” in Thomas Cole, Landscape into History, exh. cat. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press; Washington DC: National Museum of American Art: 1994), p. 55.
4. Although it cannot be determined whether Cole viewed Bandits on a Rocky Coast, he was familiar with Rosa’s paintings through visits to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he likely saw Landscape with Mercury Deceiving Argus, a work then attributed to the Italian artist, various artist’s books, and possibly his European tours (1829–31; 1841–2 ). Evidence of his knowledge exists in Cole’s writings on art where he frequently notes the attributes of Rosa’s works and in the correspondences of patron Robert Gilmor Jr., who noted that some of Cole’s drawings confirmed his “opinion of [Cole’s] style which is that of Salvator Rosa, and no inferior imitation of his excellence.” Cole even went so far as to paint the Italian artist within a landscape scene entitled Salvator Rosa Sketching Banditti, ca. 1832–40. See Wallach, p. 26; Noble, pp. 83, 227; Robert Gilmor Jr. to Thomas Cole, December 13, 1827; quoted in Ellwood C. Parry III, The Art of Thomas Cole, Ambition and Imagination (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Press, 1988), p. 63.
5. Thomas Cole, “Notes on Art,” December 12, 1829; quoted in Noble, p.83.
6. David C. Miller, “The Iconology of Wrecked or Stranded Boast in Mid to Late Nineteenth-Century American Culture,” in American Iconology, ed. by David C. Miller (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 187.
7. Thomas Cole. “Proceedings of the American Lyceum, Essay on American Scenery” The American Monthly Magazine 7, no. 1 (January 1836): 4.