The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

9. On Return from Arcadia in 1832

ELLWOOD C. PARRY III, University of Arizona, Tucson

Two prominent American artists, Samuel F. B. Morse ( 1791-1872) and Thomas Cole ( 1801-1848), returned to New York City from extended European sojourns within a fortnight of each other in November 1832. But the echoes of Italy each brought back with him proved to be very different. Morse, whose arrival was announced in the newspapers and noted in William Dunlap's diary on November 17, came home with an encapsulated history of European and especially Italian painting. His large unfinished canvas, depicting the Exhibition Gallery of the Louvre (Color Plate 11), was intentionally dominated by Italian masterpieces or by works done in Italy by foreigners as famous as Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin.

On November 28, eleven days after Morse's return, the elderly Dunlap recorded in his diary that Thomas Cole had called to see him, "just arrived from Leghorn." And a week later, when Cole stopped to see Dunlap again on Wednesday, December 5, they had a "long & very pleasant talk on painter[s], scul[p]tors and Italy. With few exceptions our painters the best in the world -- [ Cole was] delighted with [ Charles Robert] Leslie -- abominates Remb[randt] Peale who he saw & knew in England & Italy-- highest opinion of [Horatio] Greenough." 1 Besides the ideas and opinions that he willingly shared with Dunlap, what Cole also carried home with him was a passion for the beauty of Italy itself. Among his personal effects on return from abroad were numerous topographical views and landscape compositions based on his visual admiration for Florence and the Amo, Rome, the Tiber, and the Campagna, Naples, Mt. Vesuvius, and Greek ruins at Paestum. Interestingly enough, William Dunlap wrote a long, enthusiastic notice heralding the return of both Morse and Cole in blatantly nationalistic terms on December 6. And William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Evening Post, published it immediately for the edification of those, among the reading public, who might be interested in art-world politics:

Two distinguished Artists of the National Academy of Design, have recently arrived from abroad -- the president, Mr. Morse, from Paris, and Mr. Cole, the celebrated landscape painter, from Italy. Both these gentlemen have been for a few years on a visit to the old world, studying its treasures in art, insular and continental, each having passed a due portion of time in London, Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, and other places rich in the works of antiquity.

From a correspondent in Paris [ Nathaniel Parker Willis], we have received notices of a large original picture which Mr. Morse has been painting in that city, and which will comprise copies of some of the finest works in the Louvre. The idea is new, and it is said, our talented countryman has been eminently successful. We are informed that he intends to exhibit it first in Washington and we hope that from his practised pen and classical mind we shall have a volume on Italy and the Arts, of the highest value.

Mr. Cole has brought with him a number of landscapes executed during his absence for various amateurs who have sent him commissions. These pictures he intends to put on exhibition in our city, and the lovers of truth, taste, nature and poetry, as displayed by real genius on the canvass, may expect a gratification seldom enjoyed by us of the western hemisphere.

These gentlemen will dispel many of the illusions propagated by interested and ignorant travellers respecting the arts, the climate, the artists and the works of art in Europe. They will tell us . . . that we have artists among us equal to any in Europe. . . . They will tell us that we have mountains and clouds, earth and skies as fitted to inspire the poet or the painter as Italy can

____________________
Portions of this essay were adapted from E. C. Parry, The Art of Thomas Cole: Ambition and Imagination, Newark, Del., 1988.

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