Saturday, February 1, 2020

‘A birthday look at Thomas Cole’

Self-Portrait, by Thomas Cole, 1836, oil on canvas.
Owned by New-York Historical Society.

“My Birthday. Once more has the Wheel of Life revolved [and] again advances on the untried road of Another Year.”

Thomas Cole

Speaking of 19th century American painters who were Ohio Freemasons (see post below), today is the 219th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Cole. He will be associated with New York forever, but it was Lodge of Amity 5 in Zanesville, Ohio where he became a Mason. Born in England, Cole emigrated to the United States in 1818 with his family, settling in Steubenville, Ohio.

It is the Hudson Valley of New York that is inextricably bonded to Cole the artist, thanks to his landscapes depicting, or otherwise inspired by, the scenic region.

Masonic messages are found in Cole’s works. These are not overt, but are recognizable by the initiated eye. I don’t think The Architect’s Dream is among those, but still is worth discussing:

In the distance, an Egyptian pyramid looms over Egyptian, Greek, and Roman temples while, in the foreground, a Gothic-style church juts from the trees. Oil on canvas, 1840.

Cole’s works associated with Masonic thought are his four The Voyage of Life oil-on-canvas paintings from 1842, showing Childhood, Youth, Manhood, and Old Age.

The Voyage of Life: Childhood

The Voyage of Life: Youth

The Voyage of Life: Manhood

The Voyage of Life: Old Age

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC holds and exhibits these paintings. Its website says:

Cole’s renowned four-part series traces the journey of an archetypal hero along the “River of Life.” Confidently assuming control of his destiny and oblivious to the dangers that await him, the voyager boldly strives to reach an aerial castle, emblematic of the daydreams of “Youth” and its aspirations for glory and fame. As the traveler approaches his goal, the ever-more-turbulent stream deviates from its course and relentlessly carries him toward the next picture in the series, where nature’s fury, evil demons, and self-doubt will threaten his very existence. Only prayer, Cole suggests, can save the voyager from a dark and tragic fate.

From the innocence of childhood, to the flush of youthful overconfidence, through the trials and tribulations of middle age, to the hero’s triumphant salvation, The Voyage of Life seems intrinsically linked to the Christian doctrine of death and resurrection. Cole’s intrepid voyager also may be read as a personification of America, itself at an adolescent stage of development. The artist may have been issuing a dire warning to those caught up in the feverish quest for Manifest Destiny, that unbridled westward expansion and industrialization would have tragic consequences for both man and nature.

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