IN 1829 THOMAS COLE COMPLAINED THAT HIS paintings were skied in the hanging at the Royal Academy and British Gallery in London. "On the varnishing day," he wrote, "I found them in the most exalted situations." Soon his most extraordinary work, the five-canvas series known as "The Course of Empire," 1833-36, will arrive in London as the crown jewel of an ambitious show at Tate Britain, "American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820-1880." Sending "Course of Empire" to London, like sending the Mona Lisa to New York, is an iconic transaction. The series has rarely been allowed out of the building that houses it (the New-York Historical Society). If the paintings survive the transatlantic journey intact, Cole's spirit will rejoice in the fact that his work is now exalted but not skied. Born an Englishman, arriving in America at eighteen to become the so-called father of the Hudson River School, he will now represent the best of American art to his country of origin.
This is no small achievement. Even in this country, American art of the pre-modern period has been consistently left out of surveys of Western art. It is rarely taught as a separate subject in college curricula. Though the nineteenth century is generally recognized as the great era of Western landscape painting, American paintings of this period are rarely if ever included in major landscape exhibitions. Cole, Frederic Church, and Fitz Hugh Lane are not invited to share the stage with Caspar David Friedrich, John Constable, and J.M.W. Turner.
In Europe there is only one major collection of American nineteenth-century painting: that assembled by Hans Heinrich and Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza. Few European collections contain any nineteenth-century American art at all. In 2000, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid launched the first-ever large-scale American landscape show in Europe, "Exploring Eden," to which the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, loaned Cole's 1842 "Voyage of Life" series. (An earlier version exists at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, so its overseas journey was not as curatorially heart-stopping as that of "The Course of Empire.")
European scholars at large have been remarkably reluctant to admit American artists of this period into the pantheon of great landscape painters. For many of them, and for many US critics, American art began in Until the Madrid exhibition, it was primarily the Germans, with philosophical affinities that go back to Goethe, Schelling, and Friedrich, who responded with appreciation and interest. German scholars of American art, such as Martin Christadler, are often more sensitively attuned to the American nineteenth century than many American-art historians here. The Germans, in fact, held an exhibition, "Pictures from the New World," and a symposium on this period, in Berlin in 1988-89.
In the wake of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, as Western nations join with the United States to confront global terrorism, "American Sublime" offers an excellent opportunity for the European nations to assimilate American art into the Western tradition. America has suffered a profound and shattering loss of an innocence well described by Emerson: "Separated from the contamination which infects all other civilized lands, this country has always boasted a great comparative purity." The exhibition offers a reading of that earlier American culture through its landscape painting under a title that enfolds multiple meanings open to endless debate.
The ninety-work show progresses almost like a good college course, with subtitles: Wilderness, The Course of Empire, The Still Small Voice, "Awful Grandeur," Painting from Nature, Transcendental Visions, Explorations, and The Great West. All bases are covered in this taxonomy. The exhibition clearly seeks to educate and edify a British audience that presumptively holds the prior belief …