Thomas Cole exhibit featured at Albuquerque Museum

Exhibit looks at the art and studio of the father of the Hudson River School movement

“Tower by Moonlight,” Thomas Cole, 1838, oil on canvas, 16¾×20½×3½ inches. (Courtesy of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, Gift of David and Laura Grey)

In his luminous search for the spiritual in nature, Thomas Cole found redemption in the flick of a paintbrush.

Founder of America’s first art movement with the Hudson River School, Cole’s romantic aesthetic vision depicted the Hudson River Valley and the area surrounding it, including the Catskill, Adirondack and White mountains.

“Thomas Cole’s Studio: Memory and Inspiration” is open at the Albuquerque Museum. It runs through Feb. 12, 2023. The exhibition includes a re-creation of the artist’s studio, including his easel, color wheel, paintbox, plaster casts, paintbrushes and palette, as well as 26 oil paintings on loan from the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Art Museum, the Albany Institute of History and Art, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and more. It reassembles a selection of the paintings and other objects that were in Cole’s New Studio when he died suddenly at the age of 47. The exhibition was organized by Franklin Kelly, senior curator, and Christiane Ellis Valone, curator of American paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

“The way (Cole) utilizes light to create these illuminated canvases is very beautiful,” said Josie Lopez, Albuquerque Museum curator. “He ends up being one of the painters who establishes one of the most important art movements in the U.S.”

Cole (1801—1848) was a polymath whose creative contributions encompassed not only painting but also poetry, philosophy, essays, interior decoration and architecture. The landscape paintings created during his brief career explored a diverse range of subjects, including American scenes; European landscapes; works with historical, religious, and mythological themes; and paintings of imaginary, allegorical subjects. Cole was at the height of his powers when he died, enjoying great popular and critical success, and he was widely considered America’s greatest painter.

Following Cole’s death, his family preserved the New Studio as a veritable shrine to his memory; for years it remained exactly as he left it. Filled with finished and unfinished paintings, sketches, drawings, and painting tools and materials, the new studio offered the largest and most comprehensive gathering of Cole’s work available anywhere. The studio became a pilgrimage site for those who hoped to learn from his example.

The original New Studio no longer stands, and many of the works of art and other items in it were dispersed long ago. However, inventories, accounts by visitors, and later photographs provide a sense of what was once present. This exhibition reimagines the New Studio as it was around 1850, displaying works known to have remained at this site after Cole’s death and various materials evoking the working ambiance of a place where he created art.

Cole’s feathery brushstrokes created a personal paradise dominated by ancient monuments, including “Dream of Arcadia,” (1838) with its Greek temple, towering forest and soaring mountains. From his earliest days, he sketched everywhere he traveled, capturing distinctive qualities of American scenery. He visited Greece twice, fusing landscape with history. Figures would take second place.

“He’s actually hearkening back to a romanticized view of Arcadia in Greece,” Lopez said. “Children are frolicking in the water. It has the quality of a paradise. He was hearkening back to a simpler time.”

In “Tower by Moonlight,” vegetation creeps up a crumbling stone tower.

He also worked in series.

After a long gestation, Cole’s concept for “The Cross and the World” crystallized around the idea of “The Two Pilgrims.” His goal was to follow individuals on opposing journeys, one in search of spiritual truth and salvation (“The Pilgrim of the Cross”), the other seeking the pleasures of the material world (“The Pilgrim of the World”).

For “The Pilgrim of the Cross,” the first stage of his quest was through a stormy mountain landscape emblematic of “the trials of faith.” In the next canvas, this pilgrim reached his reward, a brilliantly lit scene of “the boundless and eternal,” where the cross is fully revealed to him.

“Tornado in an American Forest” (1831) reveals nature at its most malevolent in its dark, forbidding composition.

In contrast, “Niagara Falls,” c. 1830 turns the rushing water into a cascade of emeralds and turquoise.

“It was already a tourist site,” Lopez said. “He paints it as if he’s looking at it when it was not inhabited by people.

“As he grew older, he saw the impact of humans, although I wouldn’t call him an environmentalist,” she continued. “There was an acknowledgement and understanding that the human impact on the land was something he was concerned with.”

After his unexpected death at 47, Cole would go on to influence such artists as Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt, who took what he learned from his mentor to the Rocky Mountains and Yosemite.

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