An American Turner?

The National Gallery exhibition shows that Thomas Cole, like Turner and John Martin, was a visionary and a pictorial dramatist

Jacob Willer

Born in Bolton, Lancashire, Thomas Cole (1801-48) travelled to America where he saw, felt, and set out to paint, the promise of the great new nation. His efforts made him famous over there; but he has never been well known in the land of his birth. The National Gallery has now organised a neatly instructive exhibition (until October 7) to put this painter of distinctly American subjects back into the context of British landscape painting.

We see that Cole made loose oil sketches directly from nature, in the manner of Constable, studying cloud formations in particular for the moods they might eventually impart to grander compositions. But like Turner, and like John Martin, Cole was really a visionary, a pictorial dramatist; and he also shared that Romantic fascination with the ancient past.

He was mostly self-taught, so Cole’s hand could have been surer — there is a greasiness to his painting, and he sometimes struggled to organise his tones to convey distances — but there is no mistaking the seriousness of his ambition. No matter how skilfully others might have revelled with their materials, Cole had more to say.

He set The Garden of Eden in an American landscape. The scene is enclosed by a screen of giant rocky crags in the background; mist rises from waterfalls in the middle-ground; and the foreground is overgrown with such strange varieties of vegetation. Aldous Huxley once quipped that “no good pictures have ever been painted, so far as I am aware, of tropical landscapes”, because serious painters carefully avoid spectacular scenery. Cole did not avoid it. It takes a moment for our European eyes to adjust; but here we do see something different and new — and valid. It is not a gimmick.

The beauty of America is its innocence; it is the opportunity for a fresh start. This became Cole’s main subject, though his paintings are full of wise warnings from the old world. The centrepiece of the exhibition is the series of five canvases depicting The Course of Empire. It depicts a progress from The Savage State, in which Man is still a hunter, and largely subject to Nature (in the middle-ground there is a Native American encampment); to The Pastoral State — where Cole could indulge himself in imitation of Claude — replete with what looks like a reconstructed Stonehenge; to The Consummation of Empire, where we see a fantastical Roman port city, all marble gleaming in the midday sun; to Destruction, as the city falls in a bloody battle under stormy skies; to Desolation, as the ruins of the city are reclaimed by Nature over the following centuries, and the moment of civilisation seems but a dream.

It is a masterpiece of 19th-century art. Some see pessimism in the inevitability of this progress towards desolation. Yet unlike so many other Romantics, Cole loved the fleeting moment of civilisation most — Consummation is larger than the other canvases. And though Cole evidently saw the beauty in ruins, he did not paint them as if they were full of mystical significance — Desolation is a terribly sad picture of a silent emptiness.

Cole’s painting of The Titan’s Goblet proves that he was not completely averse to Romantic mysticism, or obscurity. Yet he drew us in with his focus on what survives — or what may be reborn — instead of what is lost. Anyone who loves America — for its innocent view of itself, or as a second chance for Europe — will be touched by this exhibition.

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