Thomas Cole‘s ‘The Course of Empire: Destruction’ (1836) - (The New-York Historical Society)
Opening January 30 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibition Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings will examine, for the first time, the artist’s transatlantic career and engagement with European art.
Click here to watch a video introduction to Thomas Cole's Journey: Atlantic Crossings, narrated by Sting.
Click here to watch a video that reveals the findings of a technical examination conducted by The Met's conservation team on Thomas Cole's The Oxbow and The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire.
Celebrated as one of America’s preeminent landscape painters, Thomas Cole (1801–1848) was born in northern England at the start of the Industrial Revolution, emigrated to the United States in his youth, and traveled extensively throughout England and Italy as a young artist. He returned to America to create some of his most ambitious works and inspire a new generation of American artists, launching a national school of landscape art.
With Cole’s masterworks The Course of Empire series (1834–36) and The Oxbow(1836) as its centerpiece, the exhibition will feature more than three dozen examples of his large-scale landscape paintings, oil studies, and works on paper. Consummate paintings by Cole will be juxtaposed with works by European masters including J. M. W. Turner and John Constable, among others, highlighting the dialogue between American and European artists and establishing Cole as a major figure in 19th-century landscape art within a global context. The exhibition marks the 200th anniversary of Cole’s arrival in America.
The exhibition follows the chronology of Cole’s journey, beginning with his origins in recently industrialized northern England, his arrival in the United States in 1818, and his embrace of the American wilderness as a novel subject for landscape art of the New World. Early works by Cole will reveal his prodigious talent. After establishing himself as the premier landscape painter of the young United States, he traveled back to Europe.
The next section will explore in depth Cole’s return to England in 1829–31 and his travels in Italy in 1831–32, revealing the development of his artistic processes. He embraced the on-site landscape oil study and adopted elements of the European landscape tradition reaching back to Claude Lorrain. He learned from contemporary painters in England, including Turner, Constable, and John Martin, and furthered his studies in landscape and figure painting in Italy. By exploring this formative period in Cole’s life, the exhibition will offer a significant revision of existing accounts of his work, which have, until now, emphasized the American aspects of his formation and identity. The exhibition will also provide new interpretations of Cole’s work within the expanded contexts of the history of the British Empire, the rise of the United States, the Industrial Revolution and the American wilderness.
Upon his return to America, Cole applied the lessons he had learned abroad to create the five-part series The Course of Empire (1834–36), warning the American public that the rise and decline of ancient civilizations could be a potential fate for the young nation. Cole also provided a definition of the new American Sublime that comes to its fullest expression in The Oxbow (1836). Finally, the exhibition concludes with an examination of Cole’s legacy in the works of the next generation of American landscape painters whom Cole personally mentored, notably Asher B. Durand and Frederic E. Church.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue suitable for both scholars and the general public. With new information on Cole’s life and revisionist interpretations of his major works, the publication will also feature research by The Met’s conservation team into Cole’s methods as a painter, illuminating this previously neglected area. The catalogue will be available for purchase in The Met Store (hardcover, $65).
A series of Education programs will complement the exhibition. MetLiveArts Sting: Atlantic Crossing will feature an intimate, acoustic performance by Sting in the Museum’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium on April 24, 25, and 26 (7:30 p.m.). Prior to each concert, ticket holders will enjoy a special viewing of the exhibition with curators Elizabeth Kornhauser and Tim Barringer. The April 24 performance is for Members only.
On April 8 (2 p.m.), as part of MetSpeaks, American artist Ed Ruscha will discuss his seminal five-part Course of Empireseries (1992 and 2003–5) with his friend, the author and artist Tom McCarthy, who resides in London. Tickets for this event will be available for purchase.
Met curator Elizabeth Kornhauser and paintings conservator Dorothy Mahon will explore Cole’s work methods and techniques with artist Stephen Hannock on February 7 (6:00 p.m.), revealing the layers of meaning in Cole’s iconic painting, The Oxbow. This program is part of the Conversations With… series.
Elizabeth Kornhauser will moderate a Sunday at The Met discussion on April 15 (2 p.m.) on Cole’s role as a proto-environmental artist with scholars Alan Braddock and Rebecca Bedell and artist Michel Auder. (Auder’s 2017 work The Course of Empire was shown at the Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany.) These programs are free with Museum admission.