Thomas Cole & The Voyage of Life

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Youth, 1840, oil on canvas, 52 1/2 x 78 1/2 inc
Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Youth, 1840, oil on canvas, 52 1/2 x 78 1/2 inches (Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art)

Jonathan Kamholtz reviews the exhibition America’s Eden: Thomas Cole and The Voyage of Life at the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, on view through September 14, 2014.

Kamholtz writes: "Like its models in Dutch 17th century painting, American landscape art loves to raise questions about the status and situatedness of the observing eye... The Hudson River artists confronted and captured a mitigated wildness. Nineteenth century America is a landscape of trees and rocks punctuated by cleared fields and connected by footpaths... For [Asher B.] Durand, as for many of the artists in the show, any single swath of the woods captures the range and cycle of life Cole splits out into his four canvases. Parts of the forest are young as a stripling or new growth; elsewhere we see sturdy growth and mature specimens; inevitably, there is weakness, death, and decay. There is a footpath in 'Youth,' one of the Cole paintings, though it is a moralized one, the well-beaten walkway that leads nowhere and certainly cannot ever get you any closer to the mirage of what Cole called the 'cloud-built palace.' Durand wrote that he thought of his renditions of nature as 'portraiture,' and valued detail; a small plant can command our attention, the part helping to shape our perception of the whole. By contrast, in his narrative cycle paintings, Cole was ambivalent about the value of the detail, noting that in youth, 'the mind magnifies the Mean and the Common into the Magnificent, before experiences teaches what is the real.'  '

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