Of all the images of artwork over which I pored in darkened lecture rooms and slide libraries, Kindred Spirits is one of those at which I marveled the most. Its painter, Asher B. Durand, skillfully executed sparkling waterfalls, soaring birds, verdant leaves, moss-covered tree trunks and rocks, and two men surveying this lovely scene. An inscription on a tree that reads “Bryant/Cole” is a clue to the identity of these nature-loving friends who trekked through New York’s Catskill Mountains — poet William Cullen Bryant and painter Thomas Cole.
Durand painted Kindred Spirits in 1849 as a tribute to Cole after his death in February 1848. Once housed at the New York Public Library and now part of the collection of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the painting is regarded as one of the great works of the Hudson River School, in which a handful of painters painstakingly captured the beauty and emotional appeal of nature.
Cole — the man in the hat, holding the red sketchbook, and here, in an 1838 portrait by Durand — assumed heroic proportions on my list of favorite artists. In 1818, 17-year-old Cole and his family emigrated from their native England to Steubenville, Ohio, where he designed patterns and engraved woodblocks used in his father’s wallpaper-making business. After an itinerant portrait painter taught him the basics of oil painting, he started painting landscapes, eventually studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. A sketching trip up the Hudson River in 1825 inspired him to create several works that were displayed in a New York City shop window and noticed by three of the city’s most prominent artists, including Durand, who was working as an engraver. In the years that followed, Cole became known for painting landscapes and allegorical scenes like The Voyage of Life, the celebrated four-painting series that follows a voyager from infancy to old age as he sails through life, guided by an angel, now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He was a frequent writer of poetry, journal entries, and periodical articles, like the “Essay on American Scenery” that he wrote for the January 1836 issue of American Monthly Magazine. But he is best known for founding the Hudson River School, a style of landscape painting that juxtaposes small details with luminous, picturesque views of the natural scenery bordering the river and the Catskill Mountains.
When I heard that an exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art would explore Cole’s interest in architecture — particularly as a designer of the Ohio Statehouse — I counted the days to its November 18 opening.
Thomas Cole: The Artist as Architect, on view through February 1, 2017, is a collaboration between the museum and the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York. The site includes Cedar Grove, Cole’s home, and a studio he built there in 1846 that was reconstructed this year. In the exhibition, see views of Cedar Grove that were created by fellow Hudson River School painters Frederic Church and Jasper Cropsey, as well as a scale model of the studio that was modeled after an Italian villa.
The exhibition includes examples of elevations and floor plans for Cole’s projects, as well as some of his landscape paintings that include buildings and architectural ruins, such as View of Monte Video (1828) and The Van Rensselaer Manor House (1841). Two pattern books from Cole’s personal library that illustrate building styles and decoration are also on view.
In 1829, Cole made his first trip to Europe, studying its great paintings, sketching architectural details and gaining inspiration in Italian ruins, such as those he captured in The Cascatelli, Tivoli, Looking Towards Rome. I nearly genuflected before the hinged mahogany paintbox that Cole took with him on subsequent travels to Italy. The image on its interior cover depicts the ruins of the Temples of Zeus and Concordia in Girgenti, Sicily.
By the mid-1830s, Cole started expressing his interest in architecture, listing himself as an architect in the New York City Directory and sketching ideas for a national monument to George Washington. In 1838, he entered a competition to design the Ohio Statehouse, and won third place for his rendering of a horizontal building with a Doric colonnade, a recessed entrance and window bays, and a low windowed dome.
Alexander Jackson Davis, an architect who authored Rural Residences, the first American pattern book for building houses, was hired to combine the best of all three drawings; however, Davis’s plan was too expensive to build, so Cole’s design was executed with some modifications.
The Architect’s Dream, which Cole painted in 1839-1840 and is now in the collection of the Toledo Museum of Art, is another highlight of the exhibition. The painting portrays an architect lounging on a column, perched on books as he conjures images of fantastic architectural styles.
Perhaps the most poignant part of the exhibition is Cole’s study for The Cross and the World – The Pilgrim of the World on His Journey. Painted in 1846-47, the study was to be for a five-part series Cole planned about the opposing journeys of the “pilgrim of the cross,” who seeks spiritual truth, and the “pilgrim of the world,” who delights in material things, but he died before he completed it.
Cultivate a taste for scenery, Cole urged in his “Essay on American Scenery.”
“It is a subject that to every American ought to be of surpassing interest; for, whether he beholds the Hudson mingling waters with the Atlantic–explores the central wilds of this vast continent, or stands on the margin of the distant Oregon, he is still in the midst of American scenery–it is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity–all are his; and how undeserving of such a birthright, if he can turn towards it an unobserving eye, an unaffected heart!,” Cole wrote. “…Nature has spread for us a rich and delightful banquet. Shall we turn from it? We are still in Eden; the wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly.”
The same could be said for cultivating a taste for architectural scenery, including the buildings that Cole conceived.
For more, see Thomas Cole: The Artist as Architect, the catalogue by Annette Blaugrund that accompanies the exhibition; Thomas Cole’s Poetry: The Collected Poems of America’s Foremost Painter of the Hudson River School; The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision, by Linda S. Ferber; American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School, a publication of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Hudson River School: American Landscape Artists, by Bert D. Yaeger; Thomas Cole: Landscape Into History, edited by William H. Truettner and Alan Wallach; and a DVD titled The Hudson River School: Artistic Pioneers.