“I think that having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want” wrote Andy Warhol.
At the beginning of the 1800s, a very young Thomas Cole would have surely appreciated this statement. Thomas Cole was born in Bolton, near Manchester, in the midst of the industrial revolution. The city in which he grew up was extremely polluted and increasingly threatened by factory openings and by the general discontent that the lack of jobs generated amongst the inhabitants. In an increasingly chaotic and overcrowded urban reality, it is not surprising how a young Thomas Cole, like many other artists of the time, found peace only in the relaxing and sublime countryside landscapes. The immaculate nature and the vast wild spaces became his favourite subject from the beginning of his career. But the boy who dreamed so much about art and poetry was forced to work in a factory due to the failure of his father’s business. In 1817, following the family to Liverpool, he became an apprentice at an engraver’s shop where he had the chance to see artists who, at the time, were among the best known, such as William Turner.
It is precisely with a William Turner’ s work that the exhibition Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire opens on display at the National Gallery in London. The painting, a beautiful watercolour depicting Leeds, shows us the first effects of industrialization on a city that, at the time, was a centre for textile production. The second painting exhibited in the room is Coalbrookdale by Night of Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, an artist who, compared to Thomas Cole, had a different vision of industrialization, and who attempted to portray modern cities because in them and in their demonic halo of fire and industry he dared to see sublimity.
Coalbrookdale by Night, Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, 1801
The exhibition choice of juxtaposing the smoky canvas of Loutherbourg to the idyllic landscape of the third painting in the room The Garden of Eden of Thomas Cole, create a contrast that seems to support the view of the artist as a defender of the environment and as a maintainer of nature’s integrity rather than as a simple landscape painter. The firm aversion that Thomas Cole had to the aggressive and territorially expansive policy of President Jackson, supports this idea. Painting American landscapes like Arcadian paradises or comparing Jackson’s actions with those destructive of Caesar or Napoleon in The course of empire paintings, seems to confirm the thesis that Cole was a “proto-fighter for the eco battle”
The second room of the exhibition is dedicated to paintings created from 1829 when Cole, after a decade in the United States, decided to move to London where he personally entered into contact with artists who deeply marked his artistic personality: William Turner and John Constable. Despite the deep admiration that Thomas Cole had for Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps and in particular for the obscure vortex of clouds depicted in it, his impression of Joseph Mallord William Turner was particularly negative. The same cannot be said about the meeting between Thomas Cole and John Constable. Cole was literally captured by his works: the visual composition of Hedleigh Castle impressed him to such an extent that Cole used it many times in his later works. Although the paintings on display in this room are excellent there is far too much of William Turner and Constable to be an exhibition featuring Thomas Cole as the main artist. Until this point of the exhibition, Cole almost seems a fleeting apostrophe amongst the works of these artists when instead his majestic landscapes should be the protagonists.
Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1812
It is only in the third room that the true beating heart of Thomas Cole’s work is exhibited. Course of Empire is a series of five paintings created starting from 1833, following his return to the United States. The cycle represents the rise and fall of civilisation. Seen by critics as an allegory of America, the paintings represent the same landscape in different historical periods, placing them in a chronological sequence. Starting from the bliss of the wild and unspoiled nature with The savage state, the allegory continues with the first phase of civilisation in The Arcadian of pastoral state. From the second painting to the third one there is a dramatic change. In Consummation of Empire Thomas Cole depicts an empire at the height of its prosperity so divinely that the observer is left breathless. The references to the Roman empire and ancient Greece are easily recognisable: it is clear how much Thomas Cole’s journey to Europe, between 1829 and 1832, greatly influenced him. This painting is perhaps the one that most aims to criticise Jackson’s politics. Many experts believe that the king with the scarlet mantle acclaimed by the screaming crowd is the president himself. The painter seems to warn the observer about the aggressive politician and the administration of Andrew Jackson because, according to his allegory, after the great empire there will be its downfall.
The Consummation of Empire from Course of Empire, Thomas Cole, 1833-1836
In Destruction, the same city that first shone with majestic light is now attacked by a fleet of enemies while the bridge that was previously crossed by the king’s procession no longer exists. A disturbing storm with very dark clouds looms over the city, as if it wanted to foreshadow its fate. The vortex of clouds is a faithful homage to Turner’s work “Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps”.
Destruction from Course of Empire, Thomas Cole, 1833-1836
Nothing remains in Desolation of the magnificent city. The ruins of the empire are lit by the dim light of a dying day: a Corinthian column emerges from a mantle of plants and greets a pale rising moon. The fifth and last painting is the realization of the pessimism of Thomas Cole. The stillness of a landscape without mankind is the possible end of every empire that with greed and violence tries to command man and nature but ends up killed by its own hands.
Desolation from Course of Empire, Thomas Cole, 1833-1836