May 12, 2012 through August 12, 2012

This exhibition of six paintings from the collections of Crystal Bridges, The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, the musée du Louvre, and the Terra Foundation for American Art explores the birth of American landscape painting through the works of Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand. The installation also includes an earlier painting by Pierre-Antoine Patel the Younger which inspired Cole’s work after the artist saw it in Paris.

Thomas Cole is recognized as the first American artist to interweave epic historical or romantic themes and the conventions of European landscape painting with detailed depiction of American scenery. Cole immigrated to the United States from Britain in 1818. He started painting around 1820, but did not make it his primary vocation until 1825, when he moved to New York. There, he became a founding member of the National Academy of Design, where he exhibited his work to great acclaim. Although Cole produced pure landscapes, he often used nature to communicate ideas about religion, morality, and history, such as his five-painting series The Course of Empire. Cole died at age 47, leaving a vacuum in American art that would be filled by Asher B. Durand, Frederic Church, and other artists of the Hudson River School.

Different forms of writing—a short story, novel, poem, and a Biblical psalm—inspired the four paintings by Cole in this exhibition. The Tempest (High Museum of Art, Atlanta) may be based on a story Cole wrote. The violent drama in the painting and its setting in the Colonial era appear on a grander scale in Landscape with Figures: Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans” (Terra Foundation of American Art), based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper. Although all of Cole’s paintings in the exhibition have elements of the American landscape, Scene from “Last of the Mohicans” is the only one with a specific location, upstate New York around Lake George and Lake Champlain. Native Americans are important characters in Scene from “Last of the Mohicans” and The Cross in the Wilderness (Musée du Louvre, Paris). The latter painting, from a poem by British writer Felicia Hemans, is connected to the subject of The Good Shepherd (Crystal Bridges) through the shared theme of salvation within nature. Crystal Bridges’ painting, an illustration of Psalm 23 from the Old Testament, is the last painting Cole completed before his untimely death.

The two other paintings included in the exhibition demonstrate Cole’s own influences and the direction American landscape painting would take after his death. Cole admired Pierre Patel the Younger’s L’Èté (Summer) (Musée du Louvre, Paris) when he visited the Louvre in 1841. Asher B. Durand’s View Near Rutland, Vermont (Terra Foundation of American Art), with its specific landscape subject, detailed style, and depiction of America’s rich natural resources providing bounty is typical of Hudson River School paintings after Cole’s death.

American Encounters: Thomas Cole and the Narrative Landscape is part of a multi-year collaboration with Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, the musée du Louvre and the Terra Foundation for American Art