Nothing is so great a proof of real imagination and invention as the appearance that nothing has been invented. We ought to feel of every inch of mountain, that it must have existence in reality, that if we had lived near the place we should know every crag of it, and that there must be people to whom every crevice and shadow of the picture is fraught with recollections and coloured with associations. The moment the artist can make us feel this, the moment he can make us think he has done nothing that nature has done all, that moment he becomes ennobled, he proves himself great . . . He becomes great when he becomes invisible. —John Ruskin, Modern Painters, 1842
In the mid-1830s, Thomas Cole, the English-born father of the Hudson River School, was embroiled in an epic battle of imagination. The still-young man had been commissioned by Luman Reed to execute an allegorical series of canvases charting the rise and fall of civilization. The project was an excellent summary of Cole’s career: a rehearsal in pictures of the cycle of life, embedded within a realistic chimerical landscape so vast that man’s follies in its folds reveal themselves to be insignificant under God’s design. The vastness of the project was crushing the artist. “I am about commencing the fifth & last picture of the series,” he wrote to his friend, Asher B. Durand, in 1836. “I hope it will not take so great a length of time as the last or I shall be ruined. The last altogether has taken me three months. I have yet to do something at the other three” [as quoted by Parry in The Art of Thomas Cole (1988), p. 179]. Beyond the toil of the epic canvases, the very act of imagining was a heavy lift for the painter: “I have been engaged in Sacking & Burning a city ever since I saw you & am well nigh tired of such horrid work,” he confided in Durand [Ibid.]. The series was The Course of Empire, and while Cole survived the polyptych’s genesis, its patron did not: Reed died before it could be finished. The Course of Empire, which Reed’s family goaded Cole to complete, was an extraordinary achievement in the painter’s career and a defining moment in American art. James Fenimore Cooper declared, in a mixed complement: Not only do I consider the Course of Empire the work of the highest genius this country has ever produced, but I esteem it one of the noblest works of art that has ever been wrought. There are simplicity, eloquence, ditinctnes and pathos in the design, that are beautifully brought out and illustrated in the execution. The day will come when, in my judgment, the series will command fifty thousand dollars [James Fenimore Cooper, as quoted by Esther Isabel Seaver in Thomas Cole: One Hundred Years Later (1948) p. 11]. Still, the vast imagined wars and faux-historical drama of the series taxed Cole mightily, and even he doubted its merit. “I DID believe it was my best picture but I took it downstairs today & got out of the notion,” he wrote Durand. In many ways, the thing that Cole love most about the work were the elements that endured across the series: the landscape. One of many themes of the narrative is the smallness of man, the sublimity of nature, and the endurance of nature outside of civilization. History was a secondary interest to Cole. He saw in untamed wilderness a promise of future, but also a slice of the eternal – a much higher thing: American scenes are not destitute of historical and legendary associations; the great struggle for freedom has sanctified many a spot, and many a mountain stream and rock has its legend, worthy of poet’s pen or painter’s stencil. But American associations are not so much of the past as of the present and the future . . . And in looking over the uncultivated scene, the mind may travel far into futurity. Where the wolf roams, the plough shall glisten; on the gray crag shall rise temple and tower; might deeds shall be done in the yet pathless wilderness; and poets yet unborn shall sanctify the soil [as quoted by Esther Isabel Seaver in Thomas Cole: One Hundred Years Later (1948) p. 14]. This was the allure of the American landscape: the sublimity of eternity and the “travel far into futurity.” And so in the midst of his crushing commissions, in the fall of 1835, Cole went off in search of “the picturesque.” October 7th – I have just returned from an excursion in search of the picturesque towards the head-waters of the Hudson . . . In the neighborhood of Schroon the country is more finely broken. The lake I found to be a beautiful sheet of water, shadowed by sloping hills clothed with heavy forests. Rowing north for a half an hour or so, you will see the lake expanded to the breadth of two or three miles. Here the view is exceedingly fine. On both hands, from shores of sand and pebbles, gently rise the thickly-wooded hills: before you miles of blue water stretch away: in the distance mountains of remarkable beauty bound the vision. Two summits in particular attracted my attention: one of serrated outline, the other like a lofty pyramid. At the time I saw them, they stood in the midst of the wilderness like peaks of sapphire. It is my intention to visit this region at a more favourable season. I set off on my return, next morning, and ha d a cold and rainy day [Thomas Cole’s journal, as quoted in Louis Legrand Noble, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole, 1853, reprinted 1964, pp. 151-2]. Cole of course did return, but not until nearly two years later. And finally, he was joined by his dear friend and confidant, the painter Asher B. Durand. Cole sought to impress his friend by presenting him with new vistas – and Durand, meanwhile, was impressing upon Cole a heretofore unknown technique—painting directly from nature. Cole did not often sketch outdoors in oil. That he did so at all and with the variety demonstrated [in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts] is primarily attributed to two factors. The first is that he was a friend of Asher B. Durand. Until Durand began to do so during the early 1830s, no American landscape painter practiced the art with any frequency (or perhaps at all). Before Durand, American landscapists drew but did not paint outdoors from nature; after him, plein-air oil sketching became an increasingly familiar facet of American artists’ approach to the landscape repertoire” [Mary Black, Gerald Carr, et al., American Paintings in the Detroit Institute of Arts, vol. I (1991), pp. 280-1]. In June of 1837, the couple, along with their wives, set off for the picturesque. Cole took copious notes – in his journals, on the pages of his sketchbook, and in letters to friends: June 8.—I have just returned from a tour of the picturesque. On the 22nd ult., Mrs. C. and myself joined Mr. and Mrs. Durand, with the intention of exploring the scenery of Schroon Lake. From the hasty visit I paid it, in the autumn of 1835, I had reason to expect a rich treat. I have not been disappointed. To Mr. Durand the scenery was entirely new: and I am happy in having been the means of introducing the rich and varied scenery of Scrhoon to a true lover of nature [Thomas Cole’s journal, as quoted in Louis Legrand Noble, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole, 1853, reprinted 1964, p. 177]. 24th of June –The scenery is not grand, but has a wild sort of beauty that approaches it: quietness—solitude – the untamed—the unchanged aspect of nature – an aspect which the scene has worn thousands of years, affected only by the season, the sunshine and the tempest. We stand on the border of a cultivated plain, and look into the heart of nature . . . To the north, and retiring in the purple haze of distance, a company of mountains lift their heads, some dark with ancient forests, others broken brown , and bar; the whole surmounted by majestic form, whose serrated summit, at sunset, lifts itself among the clouds, an amethystine mass. I do not remember to have seen in Italy a composition of mountains so beautiful or pictorial as this glorious range of the Adirondack [Ibid]. There exists a full-sheet sketchbook page devoted to Schroon Mountain, making the date, in the collection of the Detroit Institute of the Arts. A large canvas in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art is putatively based on those sketches, but with one notable distinction: the Cleveland painting is an autumn scene, and Cole and Durand were visiting in early summer. The present work, an oil sketch on panel, employs a color palette suited to the season: rich with greens and golden hues, it has the immediacy of a work painted directly from reverend Nature. Cole helpfully remarks upon the exact moments of his artmaking at Schroon: …One day we diverged from the road, about three miles from B—’s, with the intention of getting a fine view of the great range of mountains to the west. We climbed a steep hill, on which many sheep were at pasture, and gained a magnificent view. Below us lay a little lake, embosomed in hills, and a perfect mirror of the surrounding woods: beyond the hills, partially cleared, and beyond these Schroon Mountain, raising its peak to the sky. Here we sketched [Ibid.]. This may have been the spot from which the pencil sketch at the Detroit Institute was executed – but Cole and Durand “could not resist the temptation” to “dash down the hill towards the pond – skirted its shores through the swampy forest” west, towards a clearing they saw closer to the foot of the mountain. “We emerged [from the woods] and our eyes were blessed,” Cole’s journal breathlessly records. “There was no lake-view as we had expected, but the hoary mountain rose in silent grandeur, its dark head clad in a dense forest of evergreens, cleaving the sky, “a star-y pointing pyramid.” We see the little lake, and above, in the present work, the “amethystine mass” – and of course the “star-y pointing pyramid.” Wherever Cole and Durand sketched that afternoon, this revelatory moment, emerging into a clearing before the mountain, was the scene the painter sought to capture when he set to easel. “Here,” his journal entry that day concludes, “we felt the sublimity of untamed wildness, and the majesty of the eternal mountains” [Ibid.]. The encircling mass of storm cloud was a pictorial device Cole had used since the 1820s, incorporating, in the present work, piercing rays of sunlight not unlike those in 1828’s Expulsion from Garden of Eden (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) or in the Voyage of Life series (1840). “In Schroon Mountain Cole expanded the scale of the picturesque and emphasized not only the beauty of an autumn landscape but the sublimity of experience of the wilderness” [Earl Powell, Thomas Cole (1990), p. 73]. Unlike the Cleveland canvas, the present work is not an autumn scene, as Powell mentions: it is rendered freshly with all the seasonal foliage of his trip on June 24th. Its execution, moreover, gives us a profound window into Cole’s hand. Although he was side-by-side with the plein-air-painting Durand, there is no direct evidence that Cole painted the present work outdoors. Before their trip, Cole instructed Durand on which paints to bring: You said you wished me to give you a list of colours; I scarcely know what can be got in bladders, but I think the following – White – Roman Ochre – Terra Sienna Raw & Burnt – Burnt umber – Crome [sic.] yellow – Naples yellow – Antwerp Blue – Madder Lake – Vandyke brown – Light Red – Indian Red – A little Oil – and some Coapl varnish in a vial as a drier—Vermillion and even Crome [sic.] yellow we may carry unprepared and a little ultramarine [as quoted by Ellword C. Perry III, The Art of Thomas Cole: Ambition and Imagination (1988), p. 194]. It is not known whether the pair had time, in their rush over “the topmost knoll of the clearin,g trampling down the luxuriant clover” to pitch the “camp stool and camp umbrella” and put these colors to use at the foot of Schroon—but certainly these would have been Cole’s choice whenever he executed it, if only shortly after the sketching trip. It possesses all the urgency of the moment his journals describe. Brushstrokes go unconcealed, and the palette, while in keeping with the earthy tones of his masterpieces, is fresh and expressive. He rapidly put down vivid color, capturing the “sublimity of untamed wilderness” with a wet-into-wet quality, the touch of a master in full confidence of his powers.
The artist; to Theodore Alexander Cole (his son); to Florence Cole Vincent, Cedar Grove, New York (his daughter); to Theodore and Elizabeth Van Loan (her nephew), 1961; to Descended in the family, until the present
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