Thomas Cole was a visionary who took a different approach to his surroundings, and that approach would go on to inspire generations of artists.
America was still a young country when Cole emigrated to the United States in 1818 at age 17. He would eventually see the country’s natural landscapes as spaces between one city and the next.
“It was America,” says Angelique Bergeron, curator at the West Baton Rouge Museum, which is showing the exhibit, “Wildland: Thomas Cole and the Birth of American Landscape Painting,” through Jan. 15.
The exhibit is part of the National Endowment for the Humanities “NEH on the Road” series of traveling shows, and features panels and interactive videos and activities enhanced by Louisiana landscape paintings and original Audubon colorplates.
“Thomas Cole’s paintings influenced other artists throughout the country,” Bergeron says. “He was painting New York, but artists in Louisiana started thinking about what their landscape looked like.”
Which prompted John James Audubon to take a more detailed look at nature in North America, resulting in his book of colorplates, “Birds of America.” Audubon worked on some of the paintings while tutoring Eliza Pirrie at Oakley Plantation in St. Francisville.
“We’re featuring two of his prints from Hill Memorial Library’s collection,” Bergeron says. “We chose the bald eagle, because it’s so powerful, and because the eagle has captured a catfish, which relates to Louisiana. We’re also featuring his mockingbirds.”
Cole’s story is told in detail in this show. He was 24 when he started painting a new vision of his adopted country, one that Americans knew but hadn’t seen in their art.
Before Cole, American painters focused on portraits, which was largely the focus in Europe. In fact, Cole learned painting fundamentals from a traveling portrait painter. But Cole wasn’t successful at portrait painting, perhaps because it was too limiting.
“If the imagination is shackled, and nothing is described but what we see, seldom will anything truly great be produced in either painting or poetry,” he said in 1826.
Cole’s reference to the imagination is a key component to his vision. He, and the artists who followed, viewed the American landscape as a metaphor for the hope and promise of the new nation in political, economic and cultural terms.
“The unspoiled wilderness was seen as a paradise — untouched by civilization,” the museum’s label states. “Painters of the Hudson River School, led by Thomas Cole, believed that nature could provide a spiritual experience or convey allegorical themes.”
The Hudson River School was a movement of 19th century landscape painters who depicted the Hudson River Valley and its surrounding area, including the Catskill, Adirondack and the White mountains. Along with Cole, artists were Asher Brown Durand, Frederic Edwin Church, John Frederick Kensett and Samford Robinson Gifford.
“Their images celebrate natural features, but they also allude to the artists’ ambivalence about encroaching settlements, rising tourism and the impact of these on native cultures,” the museum label continues.
The exhibit, through interactive screens and panels, demonstrates how Cole shaped his paintings, from sketches through the finished work. One area even shows how he mixed his paints and includes his actual paintbrush.
Though none of Cole’s paintings are traveling with this show, Louisiana visitors will recognize the Hudson River School’s vision through paintings of the Bayou State’s waterways and live oak-lined roads by Ellsworth Woodward, Richard Clague, William Buck and Joseph Meeker.
The paintings are on loan from The Historic New Orleans Collection.
“Audubon said, ‘A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children,’” Bergeron says. “That is so powerful, and it sums up the work these artists were doing.”