Whither The Course Of Empire?

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Shortly before his death James Fenimore Cooper left off scolding his countrymen long enough to heap praises on the memory of his late friend Thomas Cole. Not only was Cole “the highest genius this country has ever produced” but also, in Cooper’s estimation, his The Course of Empire, the series of five paintings, was “one of the noblest works of art ever wrought.” He went on to predict that these canvases would one day be valued at fifty thousand dollars. In today’s booming art market and with today’s inflated prices that figure seems modest enough. But it was ten or twenty times larger than the artist’s original fee and a far higher sum than any American painting had yet sold for.

Cooper was not, of course, a specialized critic or historian of art, neither of which is given to such unambiguous opinions about modern painting. But he was a sophisticate among his fellow Americans. Earlier in his life he had spent seven years in Europe where he himself had been accepted as a New World genius. (One thinks of Franz Schubert calling from his death bed for more of Cooper’s novels to read.) He had honed his critical temper to a fine edge against the opinions and practices of the Old World, and he had gone shopping for “old masters” along the way.

Shortly after his return to America in 1833, the Knickerbocker Magazine somewhat caustically reminded American patrons of the arts that not every painting entering the country tagged with a big name was what it purported to be, and that they might better spend their money on works by the rising American artists of the day, such as Cole and Durand. Cooper needed no such encouragement; he was more at home with the artists than with the literary men of his own time and patronized them—Cole among others—both with advice and with commissions. It is part of his legend that he sat for long afternoons in the Louvre, “as regularly as the day comes,” while Samuel F.B. Morse copied paintings in the Grande Galerie, exclaiming, “Lay it on here Samuel—more yellow—the nose is too short—the eye too small—damn it if I had been a painter what a picture I should have painted.” Even so, the two remained lifelong friends.

The “glorious Fenimore” was by no means alone in his admiration of Cole’s work in general and of The Course of Empire in particular. William Cullen Bryant, whose remarks to his compatriots at large were more cordially and respectfully received than Cooper’s, had already labeled Cole a rare genius and had pronounced these five paintings “among the most remarkable and characteristic of his works.” There was, in fact, no audible voice to the contrary at the time. When The Course of Empire was first shown to the public at the National Academy of Design in 1836 it was an immediate popular success, which merely enhanced Cole’s already towering reputation in America.

After more than a century Cole’s reputation as an artist is still secure; or, more exactly, it has been reestablished at a fairly high level. He was born in England in 1801 and was virtually self-taught. His latent talent had apparently been sparked in Ohio, whither he had moved with his family when he was nineteen, by a meeting with an itinerant portrait painter—possibly the same wandering artist who a few years later gave Audubon pointers in oil painting. By his middle twenties he had already won the respect of the professionals. “This youth,” remarked the aging John Trumbull when he spotted some of Cole’s early canvases in a New York store window, “has done what all my life I have attempted in vain.” He bought a picture and persuaded his friends to buy others.

Cole went on to produce some of the most satisfying landscapes that were painted in America in his time. He was, to be sure, the leader and the most articulate member of the Hudson River School of painters, whose canvases—virtually by popular demand—opened up to Americans a fresh vision of their land. The country was clamoring for an art of its own, something that would suggest the richness of its expectations and, quite specifically, the glory of its unique natural resources.

Cole was something of a writer as well as a painter. Before he won fame as an artist one of his stories had been published in the Saturday Evening Post, and all his life he wrote highly commendable verse. He often volunteered elaborate literary expositions to accompany his pictures, a practice most modern artists scorn until they are properly approached. He never doubted that his foremost purpose was to edify his contemporaries and to “improve posterity” with the spiritual content of his message. The colors and arrangements of his canvases were important, not so much in themselves, but as aids to his preachments. That approach to art has become singularly unfashionable. Nowadays the abstract elements of a painting are considered not only of primary importance, but, at the extreme of current practice, quite enough in themselves without any recognizable content.