American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience

By Barbara Novak | Go to book overview

3.
Thomas Cole

THE DILEMMA OF THE REAL AND THE IDEAL

If, for Allston, the color of "Titian, Tintoret and Paul Veronese ... took away all sense of subject," this was not possible for Thomas Cole ( 1801-48), who maintained that "the language of art should have the subserviency of a vehicle. It is not art itself. Chiaroscuro, colour, form, should always be subservient to the subject, and never be raised to the dignity of an end." 1 With Cole, even more than Allston, idea and story took precedence over form, and one might say that more than Allston, Cole a generation later, took Sir Joshua's dicta to heart. Cole was capable finally of transferring the heroic aims of the history painters to the landscape category, where at last they could take firm root in American soil. Thus, in the largest sense, he was a transitional figure.

This early nineteenth-century emphasis on Nature and landscape was hardly unique to America, having found expression abroad in Rousseau's concepts of natural primitivism, Schelling Naturphilosophie, and Wordsworth's "God in Nature," as well as in Emerson Nature. 2 But with the new respect for "unspoiled nature" on both sides of the Atlantic, an American landscape school was not long in developing. Nationalist pride was considerably bolstered by the realization that America more clearly fitted Rousseau's concept of a primeval paradise than any of the European countries with which, it was uneasily believed, America could not yet compete artistically. If we had no cultural traditions, we had at least our ancient trees. Thus, to Cole, "All nature here is new to art, no Tivolis, Ternis, Mont Blancs, Plinlimmons, hackneyed and worn by the daily pencils of hundreds; but primeval forests, virgin lakes and waterfalls." 3

America's search for some sense of past in the raw new world focused on an idea of landscape that was at once strongly nationalist and moralist. Looking back for "the cause of the failure" America's early art (that is,

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