Garden Rant
Gardening While Intoxicated
Buffalo Spree


A year ago, Licata became the fourth member of a group of garden bloggers with an attitude. Garden Rant one of my favorites: A blend of gossip, news, crusade and, yes, raw rant, it blows the cobwebs out of gardening's mustier corners.

–Adrian Higgins,
Washington Post

... co-curators Elizabeth Licata and Amy Cappellazzo have magnificently transcended the limitations of what is, at bottom, a show of books. ...Preciousness—the bane of such exhibitions—is nowhere in evidence.

–Richard Huntington,
Buffalo News

"Garden Walk Buffalo: A Celebration of Urban Gardens," is a tour guide into dozens of gardens during the annual event held the last full weekend in July. It's knowingly written by Buffalo Spree editor Elizabeth Licata, and packed with gorgeous photographs...

–Mark Sommer,
Buffalo News

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Art Writer

"Spirit of the Valley: Thomas Cole,"

Although he immortalized the scenery of the Catskill Mountains and served as a founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole was always deeply ambivalent about his role in glorifying the American Landscape. His rapid and dramatic success mirrored the populist, forge-ahead spirit of Jacksonian democracy, but his eighteenth century spirit longed for a quieter, more civilized age. This ambivalence, expressed through subtle and overt symbolic devices in his paintings, is only now being explored. For a long time, art history has casually overlooked this aspect of his work, choosing to view Cole as a romantic champion of the American wilderness, a master of the sublime. The artist's didactic series of allegorical paintings, such as "The Course of Empire" (1834-36), "The Voyage of Life" (1842) and the never completed "The Cross and the World" (1846-47) have been virtually ignored by twentieth-century criticism. Critics and scholars are generally embarrassed by the evangelical piety of Cole's religious works and horrified by the apocalyptic overtones of his quasi-historical series.

Now, however, a major retrospective at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art, "Thomas Cole: Landscape Into History" (on view through August 7), attempts to position the landscapes firmly in the sociopolitical context of Cole's day. Co-curators William Truettner and Alan Wallach believe that the landscapes and the allegorical works have been falsely polarized. In their view, Cole¹s distrust of social progress, his evangelical religious convictions, and his anti-democratic conservatism are potent and revelatory guides for a journey through the entire Cole oeuvre, not just the obviously politicized--and discredited--allegorical paintings. Whether the allegories stand up under such enhanced scrutiny or not, this is surely the highest profile they have ever received in a major Cole exhibition. In fact, it is the first time they have been shown together in 150 years.

Throughout his life, Thomas Cole strove to realize the deeply felt concepts represented by his allegorical series. But he found that, for the most part, people wanted landscapes. "I am not the artist I should have been, had taste been higher," Cole wrote in an undated journal fragment, "for instead of indulging myself in the production of works such as my feelings and fancy would have chosen‹in order to exist, I have painted to please others."

Ironically, the artist had started painting landscapes partially because of his inability to draw the figure. Although Cole admired 18th century portraitists like Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Sully, he was unable to afford the expensive training that would be necessary to master figure drawing as well as linear perspective. Instead he developed his natural aptitude as best he could, finding along the way that landscape painting seemed to require less time and money to master. Cole decided to become a full-time painter in 1823, against the well-documented wishes of his father, an unsuccessful textile manufacturer from Lancashire, England. (The elder Cole had emigrated to the United States in 1819, with a family that included eighteen-year-old Thomas.) During his early years in the U.S., the artist pushed his career ahead with entrepreneurial strategies that seemed antithetical to "serious" art world practice--painting scenic transparencies, working as an itinerant portrait artist, decorating pottery, and painting stage scenery. In 1825, he succeeded in placing three landscapes with art dealer William A. Colman. There, the works were seen by Colonel John Trumbell, Asher B. Durand, and William Dunlap, all artists as well as movers and shakers in the fledgling American art world.

The "discovery" of Cole has long since been engraved in legend by 19th century writer Louis Legrand Noble in his biography of the artist. It includes a description of Cole that reinforces the breathless, starlet-in-a-drugstore cliché: "a young man, in appearance no more than one and twenty, of slight form and medium height, soft brown hair, a face very pale, though delicately rosy from agitation, a fine forehead, and large light blue eyes." Noble goes on to quote John Trumbell's words to the young painter: "You surprise me, at your age, to paint like this. You have already done what I, with all my years and experience, am yet unable to do."

Melodrama aside, Cole's career did advance quite rapidly after his meeting with Durand, Trumbell, and Dunlap, although he always had to worry about money. He eventually settled in the village of Catskill, N.Y., marrying Maria Bartow in 1837. Cole's relatively brief life was a busy round of travel, exhibitions, commissions, lectures, and publications; he even found time to act as mentor to the young Frederic Church. After Cole¹s death, Church, Durand, Jasper Francis Cropsey, John F. Kensett, and others rushed to commemorate Cole with paintings, hoping to solidify their places as the new leaders of the American landscape movement. They soon found that naturalistic representations of the land rather than the didactic parables Cole had favored were what the American buying public now wanted.

Cole's attitude toward landscape is central to the ambivalence and contradictions which riddled his aesthetic and political beliefs. In works such as Indian Pass--Tahawas (1847), the artist celebrates the American wilderness, typically using the image of the Native American as a symbol of untamed nature, rather than as a inhabitant of the natural world. The feathered headdress in this painting--which was not worn by members of the Iroquois confederacy--would be a clue to Cole's indifference, if his racism weren't already so well-documented. Cole sincerely believed that Native Americans and Africans were inferior beings and feared them as bestial creatures who might arise and eradicate the European settlers. For this reason, among others, he was in favor of the cultivation of the wild. At the same time, Cole detested the speedy settlement of America¹s interior, writing in his journal in 1829, "Nothing is more disagreeable to me than the sight of lands that on just clearing with its prostrate tress--black stumps burnt and deformed--All the native beauty of the forest taken away by improving man--And alas he replaces it with none of the beauties of Art--"

Like many landscape painters, Cole removed traces of human habitation from his nature scenes. Much of The Falls of Kaaterskill (1826), a famous early landscape, is largely imaginary--wooden steps, handrails, and other necessities of tourism vanish from the scene, and a lone Native American magically appears to lend an air of authenticity.

Cole¹s idea of proper, orderly development was based on European models, models he valorized in paintings like View of Florence from San Minato (1837), in which Florence symbolizes "all that is best about Man¹s accomplishments on earth," according to Cole interpreter Theodore Stebbins. And the artist himself wrote encouraging words about the future of America in his 1836 Essay on American Scenery: "Where the wolf roams, the plow shall glisten; on the gray crag shall rise temple and tower--mighty deeds shall be done in the now pathless wilderness..." At the time these words were written, however, Cole was completing a five-part painted diatribe on the horrors of progress. It was called "The Course of Empire."

The five works in the series were commissioned in 1833 by Lunan Reed, a wealthy retired merchant, for installation in a special gallery of his New York mansion. In the series, Cole portrays a civilization based on the Greek and Roman empires, with pointed references to untamed America and its probable self-destruction. The Savage State (1843), the first painting in the series, is a wild, stormy landscape, with tiny figures gathering around teepees as others paddle canoes down a river. the second and third painting in the series, The Pastoral State (1834) and The Consummation of Empire (1835-36), depict the beginning and culmination of the classic Greco-Roman city-state, while the fourth painting, Destruction (1836), is an apocalyptic scene of rape, pillage, and chaos. Desolation (1836), depicting the ruined state, completes the series. The compositional schemes for The Savage State and Destruction are almost identical--a circular panorama of agitated scenes surrounding a gaping vortex of open sky. A psychobiographical reading of these works suggests that the artist may have feared the sublime wilderness almost as much as he dreaded the effects of civilization.

In 1849, James Fenimore Cooper wrote of the series, "Not only do I consider the Course of Empire the work of the highest genius this country has ever produced, but I esteem it one of the noblest works of art that has ever been wrought." A far cry from Whitney Museum curator Lloyd Goodrich's 1938 assessment: He called the history paintings "atrocious." In 1932, Museum of Modern Art curator Alfred Barr wrote that the paintings were "heavily laden with viscous morality." Even in Cole¹s own time, a critic for Atlantic Monthly warned the artist against too much "pandemonium" in his works.

Quite probably, visitors to the Smithsonian's current presentation of Cole's allegorical series will also find some of the imagery a bit overblown and turn with relief to the simpler landscapes. If the intent of the Smithsonian's curators is realized, however, visitors' perceptions of the landscapes will be enhanced by the allegories. Unlike many revisionist presentations, there is no effort being made here to debunk Cole or his time. Rather, a solidly researched attempt has been made to bridge the gap between Cole's time and ours, to enhance our understanding of the artist and his historical context, and to demonstrate once more the endless complexities hidden within the language of representation.

Perhaps some viewers will see parallels between "The Course of Empire" and our own cities, with the symptoms of their disintegration plainly evident, and feel with Cole that "we see that nations have sprung from obscurity, risen to glory, and decayed. Their rise has in general been marked by virtue; their decadence by vice, vanity, and licentiousness. Let us beware!"

But most will prefer Cole¹s more optimistic sentiments, as expressed in an untitled poem of 1835:

So Storms of ill when passed away
Leave in our souls serene delights;
The blackness of the stormy day
Doth make the welcome calm more bright.

Art & Antiques, 1994

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