Earlier this year I read a biography of my favorite painter, Thomas Cole, by Earl Powell. Two great quotes stood out, the first by Cole himself:
“The most distinctive, and perhaps the impressive characteristic of American scenery is its wildness….And to this cultivated state our western world is fast approaching; but nature is still predominant, and there are those who regret that with the improvements of cultivation the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away: for those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted, affect the mind with a more deep toned emotion than aught which the hand of man has touched. Amid them the consequent associations are of God the creator–they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things.” from Cole’s “Essay on American Scenery“
The second is from W.C. Bryant, given in a eulogy at Cole’s funeral:
“In 1840 he completed another series of large paintings, called The Voyage of Life, of simpler and less elaborate design than the Course of Empire, but more purely imaginative. The conception of the series is a perfect poem. The child, under the care of its guardian angel, in a boat heaped with buds and flowers, floating down a stream which issues from the shadowy cavern of the past and flows between banks bright with flowers and the beams of the rising sun ; the youth, with hope in his gesture and aspect, taking command of the helm, while his winged guardian watches him anxiously from the shore; the mature man, hurried onward by the perilous rapids and eddies of the river; the aged navigator, who has reached, in his frail and now idle bark, the mouth of the stream, and is just entering the great ocean which lies before him in mysterious shadow, set before us the different stages of human life under images of which every beholder admits the beauty and deep significance. The second of this series, with the rich luxuriance of its foreground, its pleasant declivities in the distance, and its gorgeous but shadowy ‘Structures in the piled clouds, is one of the most popular of Cole’s compositions.”
James F. Cooper, in the last chapter of his Knights of the Brush: The Hudson River School and the Moral Landscape, says this of the role of art in renewing our society’s disoriented moral compass:
A revolution of beauty, truth, and goodness requires leadership from all parts of society–parents, educators, politicians, business people. Solutions for the crisis in contemporary culture cannot be successfully addressed only by looking to the past. We must use language that speaks directly to the people of today. We must create public and private spaces that invite worship, civility, education, virtue, love, and fidelity.
Cooper then mentions two fascinating historical precedents for what he envisions. First,
The emperor Augustus dramatically revitalized the faltering Roman Empire, beset by internal chaos and civil strife, by embarking on an ambitious “cultural program.” Refurbishing old temples, creating beautiful new works of civic architecture and public sculpture, he found a way to express the longing of the Romans for the virtues of the past.
“A nation’s leaders must be constantly reminded by artists and intellectuals not to mistake political correctness for eternal truths. In the absence of a genuine aesthetic, spiritual, and moral culture, the vision of the people will be shaped by the prevailing political ideology….Americans who yearn for renewal must understand that real and lasting change begins within the minds and imaginations of gifted artists of all disciplines. They in turn need a cultural milieu that welcomes subtlety and beauty of thought and form….
“The influence of even the most powerful government is dwarfed by the influence of great art, literature, architecture, music, and drama to give shape and meaning to the world we inhabit.”
–James F. Cooper, Knights of the Brush: The Hudson River School and the Moral Landscape
In my studies of art, I’ve noticed that a lot of my favorite paintings tend to come from a single time and place: the Hudson River School. I guess I’m a sucker for dramatic, sentimental landscapes.
Two representative examples are below: first, Thomas Cole‘s The Oxbow, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, from 1836; second, Albert Bierstadt‘s Sierra Nevada, 1871-1873.
Bierstadt may be my favorite painter these days, but I still really love the video at the bottom, for Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida,” which someone, in a spark of thematic brilliance, set to Cole’s series Course of Empire.