I have a clear and intense memory of the Oxbow in the Connecticut River, even though I have never seen it. A flood washed it away a few years after Thomas Cole painted his masterpiece, “View from Mt. Holyoke after A Thunderstorm“: Last year I saw this painting. It had a dramatic effect that began a memorable journey.
Cole’s painting is an icon of the Hudson River School of landscape painting. He used the conventions and techniques of traditional pre-modern style to depict a river valley in clear sparkling light. It is a study in conflicts. The wilderness in the foreground contrasts with the pastoral civilized middle ground. The clear blue sky on the right is opposed to the dark thunder clouds on the left. The river flows toward a distant mountain that has been clear-cut with Hebrew letters that spell “Shaddai”, the Lord of Hosts. Cole’s painting creates a believable illusion of a beautiful place and a vision of19th Century Protestant belief. This cannot be found in the work of Modern Art.
My eyes and sensibilities were shaped by modern art. Painting from modernist point of view is patches of color on a flat surface. It discards many traditional conventions as eye-fooling illusionism. Most modern thinkers separate the aesthetic experience from religious experience.
Cole’s references to Christian thought are seen by some as inappropriate. Modernist aesthetics gave birth to some wonderful creations and new ways of seeing. A great deal was gained but as I studied Cole’s work, I realized that some things were lost.
If one were to hang Cole’s painting in a room full of modern paintings, it would disappear. The impact of most modern paintings is immediate and intense. Impact often comes from the simplicity and unity of design. Cole’s work is based on complexity and a multitude of diverse details. Modern paintings seem to turn over the task of finding meaning to the viewer. The work of art is as profound as the viewer is profound. Cole, on the other hand, spells everything out. He uses symbols, signs and biblical references to insure that the meaning is clear. Looking at Cole’s painting, one gains entrance into an entire world and insight into a belief system of a deep, striving and serious man. I began wondering if I could paint a picture that had that quality. Was the power of Cole’s painting that strong? I am afraid it was.
To learn how to paint in the 19th century style in itself is problematic. I would have to reinvent the traditional conventions and methods. Even if I succeeded, I knew I couldn’t paint Cole’s world view. It would be nostalgia- a longing for a return to a simpler time that I could never experience first-hand. Even if I could, I know that no time is really simple. While it is basically true that in pre-Civil war America art, religion and science were basically in harmony, that world view was shared by a small segment of society. Cole’s world was populated by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Black slaves and Irish immigrants, I am sure, had a different view. After the explosion of scientific knowledge, the invention of new technologies, and the dramatic events of history, Cole’s world vanished. Artists in my generation live in a modern time of terror: threats of atomic war, ecological degradation, etc. With all that, I still felt that there was a quality in Cole’s Oxbow painting that was worth striving for. I still didn’t know what it was.
Over the years I have found that making a copy is the best way to understand another’s work. I decided to make a small copy of Thomas Cole’s larger masterpiece. In the process, I discovered several things. I learned that despite using a tiny brush and a magnifying glass, I couldn’t render the level of detail. It would require larger canvas. Then I ran into another big problem. I couldn’t seem to paint the land or make the river stay in its banks. Then after studying Cole’s work, I discovered that it wasn’t based on a single unified perspective. The foreground was seen from one point of view. To see the Oxbow, he had to levitate 200 feet above the top of the trees to another perspective. The diminution of the size of the trees in the valley was not consistent with mathematically based rules. He mentally soared around the valley to many points of view. The shapes of the mountains on the western side of the valley didn’t make sense geologically. What I originally thought was a realistic painting guided by truth to nature was actually filled with artistic invention and imagination. In addition, despite the things I had learned my small copy didn’t have the sense of awe and Grandeur. I came to the conclusion that to approach Cole’s work, I needed to work on a larger scale and study the fact of the natural world. In order to study the facts I would have to travel to the oxbow, which was much easier for me than for Thomas Cole.
In his time, ferry boats were used to cross the river. Cole may have chosen to walk, his favored way of traveling, the 120miles of countryside get to Mt. Holyoke – six days there and six days back. That would have given him lots of time to observe study and internalize the facts of the natural world. Unlike his friend, Asher B. Durant, who made plein-air oil and color studies, Cole made drawings. It as Cole’s practice to bring the drawings back to his studio and put them away, allowing memory to sort out the important from the irrelevant. After time had passed, Cole said “the beautiful and sublime would show through.” I suspected that this part of his process, the transformation of memory to dream was crucial. It might even be the doorway I was looking for.
At any rate, I got in my car and in 2 1/2hours I was at the top of Mt. Holyoke. The oxbow had been destroyed by a flood, railroad bridges and Route 91. It was just a muddle of green. Most of the farms had returned to the forest. Nevertheless, it was still a beautiful and breathe taking vista. I spent the day making drawings of the elements Cole used in his painting. Even though I was there to study the objective facts, I was amazed by Cole’s inventions and imaginings. I took my drawings back to the studio and put them away, hoping that memory would work its magic. It didn’t. After sometime had passed, I painted a 20 x 24based on my experience. It turned out to be pretty place that lacked the power and beauty of Cole’s masterpiece. I didn’t know what to think.
Perhaps I was just lacking as a human being. Perhaps I needed a larger scale and more study of nature. With encouragement from my wife and with help, a 5’ by 7’ canvas was stretched. Then I returned to Mt. Holyoke. In the weeks that followed I painted closely observed studies of the foreground, the valley and a 30” by 40”overall study. Armed with these preparations, which left me with no excuses, I faced a personal moment of truth, and began the big painting. I worked Ikea fury. The huge scale certainly helped to create a sense of awe and grandeur. The close observation of the facts added to the images a credibility and sense of fullness. Even though it was filled with invention, it was closer to the objective facts than Coles. Then one day I put down my brushes. I didn’t know what else to do, so it was finished.
I looked at it for a long time and had to admit I had come along way. It lacked the almost fanatic intensity of Cole’s work, an intensity built up with the conflicts: wilderness against civilization, light against dark, fallen mankind in contrast to the perfection of God, all leading to the thoughts of eternity and repose. However, without reference to religion, my big painting seemed to hint at a sense of eternal repose.
During this period, my 101 year old father entered his final days in the care of hospice. In between visits, I returned to Mt .Holyoke .Looking out over the vast spaces I wondered about the enormous number of trees. The number is so large that it seems to fuse with the concept of the infinite, which was so important to the 19th Century romantics. Of course the Connecticut River Valley is a tiny part of a small planet in one of the many galaxies in an expanding universe. How different these thoughts are from Cole’s world view.
This train of thought was broken when a group of tourists arrived to see the vista. Some said” wow”, others said, “How beautiful” while others exclaimed “Oh, God”. Perhaps they all expressed the same thought.
Some theorists suggest that human beings are drawn to views of high places by a memory lodged in the collective unconscious, a memory from long ago when our ancestors wanted to see predators coming from a long distance. Who knows how such memories are passed on from one generation to another? Memory is a mysterious realm. Thomas Coles painting is certainly not short term memory like some of the Impressionist painters trying to capture the fresh quality of perception. Nor is it just long-term memory that includes concepts and things that have been learned. It seems to me that the meaning of Cole’s painting is connected to deep memory. It is also deeply involved with beauty, which he saw as God’s gift to man.
Beauty is not a popular concept in our time. It has too many meanings. Many people believe that it is totally subjective. (Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Beauty is pleasure objectified.) Others see beauty as an objective phenomenon expressed in mathematical ratios like the golden mean. Others view it as being relative depending on gender, race, class and age.
While I was sitting there looking north, an idea began to form. The beauty of the vista was undeniably real. What would happen if I painted my memory of this subjective experience using the entire objective, golden mean ratios incorporated in the conventions of traditional western landscape and accepted that what I value is relative to who I am? What would happen if I dropped the concern for” truth to nature” at this moment of time. Everything is constantly changing; the glaciers will come again and change everything. Temporal appearances don’t mean much. Why not embrace invention and imagination about a wondrous place that was alive in my memory. Perhaps I might find that doorway out of nostalgia. Perhaps I might find a vision of nature that would be powerful and intense without the support of the 19th Century Protestantism.
With the help of Paul from R. Michelson Galleries, I stretched another 5’ by 7’and began making studies. The vision in my imagination became clearer. I adjust started in on the second big painting when I received word that my father had died. After many trips to Washington DC followed by his funeral, I returned and started painting again. Then I became ill and landed in the hospital with a painful blood clot. Close encounters with death often lead to mystical experiences. Mysticism often centers on the union of man and nature. Romantics spend their lives trying to achieve this union. It seems strange because death does it automatically. Dust to dust is the ultimate union. After I recovered I returned to the second big painting with anew clarity. I didn’t have to struggle to intensify my vision. It just happened.
After it was finished, I looked at them side by side. The first painting using Cole’s focus seemed like a quiet remembrance of a place filled with repose. The second, an ideal conventional vision of beauty, had more impact. They were both memories of the view from Mt. Holyoke, a place that I had finally seen.