Tuesday 21 August 2018

Thomas Cole: painter of storms

The nineteenth century American artist Thomas Cole of the Hudson Valley School is not much known in this country, but now he has an exhibition devoted to his work at the National Gallery in London. 

Cole was born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1801, emigrating to the US in 1818. From 1825, he lived in the lovely Catskill Mountains of New York State until shortly before his death in 1848. The Catskills has plenty of wild weather, and that led me to feature his work in my book Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion).

In 1835, he painted a tornado in the Catskills in a pretty straightforward, naturalistic way (picture 3) but he was also interested in storms as a metaphor, so in the final picture of his series, The Course of Empire (picture 2) a glowering vortex of storm clouds gather over a city as it is destroyed. Cole noted: ‘A savage enemy has entered the city. A fierce tempest is raging.’ In a related (free) exhibition at the National Gallery, the contemporary American artist Ed Ruscha offers his own take on the same theme.

Similarly in Cole's Voyage of Life series from 1842, Childhood and Youth have calm skies, while Manhood is tempestuous (picture 1)



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