Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire

11 June–7 October 2018

Exhibition Overview

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Desolation

Known for epic vistas, dramatic natural settings, and imaginative landscapes, Thomas Cole’s work depicts nature at its most powerful and vulnerable. His paintings glory in the unique terrain of the American Northeast – largely still unspoiled in his time - while serving as a cautionary tale about the use of natural resources in an increasingly industrial age.

The exhibition includes 58 works, the majority on loan from North American collections. It includes Cole’s iconic painting cycle, The Course of Empire (1834–6, New-York Historical Society) and the masterpiece that secured his career and reputation – and which has never been seen in the UK before - View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow (1836, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Cole’s paintings are shown alongside works by British artists with whom he was personally acquainted, as well as those who influenced him most, including Joseph Mallord William Turner and John Constable.

A self-taught artist from Bolton, Cole is recognized as the father of landscape painting in the US. His career was shaped by his formative years laboring in the textile mills north of Manchester, and by his later study of the European masters whose works he traveled to see in London, Paris, and Rome.

Before his untimely death in 1848 at the age of 47, Cole launched the first American school of landscape art by addressing the subject of a new country’s development with respect to its relationship with nature. Ultimately, generations of artists were influenced by Cole’s vision and resonance with the natural world, although they went in different philosophical directions with the changing of the times. Frederic Edwin Church, a key figure in the Hudson River School of painting, and Asher Brown Durand were devoted students of Cole, both of whom created works in homage to their mentor – Church’s Above the Clouds at Sunrise (1849, Private Collection) and Durand’s Kindred Spirits (1849, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art) both specifically reference Cole’s passing and are seen in the exhibition.

(Photo: Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Desolation, 1836. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image created by Oppenheimer Editions.)

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