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August 10, 2003

Cole, Gilpin, Burke & Romantic Evo-Bio


A few weeks ago I made a trip over to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to check out the Indian sculpture, as you may recall from my posting, East Meets West (which you can read here.)

While I was there, I was quite happy to notice that LACMA has been beefing up its collection of American art. In particular, I was pleased to notice that several California Impressionist paintings that the museum has parked in storage for decades have been re-hung. Also, LACMA has spirited up a number of Hudson River school landscapes. I vote a Blowhardy to whatever member of the curatorial staff is responsible.

One of these newly materialized paintings, and a quite impressive one at that, is by Thomas Cole, the Godfather of Hudson River painters. (I was doubly pleased to learn that this delightful effort belonged to him because I had written on Cole’s place in American landscape painting in another posting, Hudson River School, Part I, which you can read here.) Since I was armed with my digital camera, I took a shot of it; given that it was taken in ambient light, I was quite pleased how the image came out.

T. Cole, ?, Date Unknown

Regrettably, however, not having pencil or paper with me, I didn’t get the title or date of this painting. Ergo, I know nothing about it, not even whether it is a topographical, a pastiche of various real places or just plain made up. But trying to penetrate a little deeper into the painting, I turned to my handy one-volume guide to American art, “American Visions” by Robert Hughes. In it, I found this rather intriguing quote:

The idea of landscape, as distinct from mere territory, was imported from England and it appeared quite late in America; Thomas Cole, an English import, was its first bearer in painting. Through him, Edmund Burke’s theory of the Sublime, along with the ideas of the English school of picturesque landscape (William Gilpin, Richard Payne Knight), passed into America.

Checking into William Gilpin (who was new to me) I discovered several landscape drawings by him online, which appear below:

W. Gilpin, Landscape Cliffs and Trees and Landscape River Between Hills, c. 1790

Cole’s visual debt to Gilpin is indeed obvious; the composition of his painting visibly incorporates elements that appear in both these drawings—foreground trees, a river, steep hills rising cliff like near the water’s edge, and a stormy sky.

But Gilpin’s influence was richer for Cole, I suspect, than merely providing him with compositional elements to rip off. Gilpin, an amateur artist, churchman, philanthropist and innovative educator, had worked out a practical methodology for creating “picturesque” landscapes, which embodied both Edmund Burke’s notion of “The Sublime” and which possessed a specifically English character. Gilpin’s program was based on rough subject matter—including, if possible, elements referring to England’s storied past like castles (he had been born in one himself). These subjects were painted in broad and simplified contrasts of value, with an absence of fussy details. In fact, Gilpin insisted that the artist had to be free to alter the actual appearance of things to produce a desired artistic effect, and reinforced this freedom by suggesting that the artist paint from memory rather than direct observation. The final effect should, therefore, suggest “sublime” attributes such as physical danger, wildness, and natural power.

But given that Cole possessed a highly active mind, he had probably read Burke himself. So he was undoubtedly aware that for Burke the idea of the sublime originated in the essentially fearful responses necessary for individual survival, while the beautiful originated in the sexual reproductive responses necessary for social survival, aroused by feminine qualities such as a gentle manner, neatness, and a curving softness of form.

Returning to Cole’s painting, it appears to me that he has taken these Burkean and Gilpinesque ideas and applied them to a subject of his own devising—a sort of allegory of American progress, in which the “sublime” elements of the foreground—the hill with its cliff like sides, the rough textured woods, and the lone tree are all expressly “masculine”—an idea that it is made fairly explicit by crowning the wild heights not with a medieval castle, but with a phallic tower. Meanwhile, the background is full of softly rounded “feminine” forms, and appears eminently fertile. Evidently the masculine principle and the feminine principle will together produce a fruitful new civilization, once the storm clouds that currently hang over the scene have departed—and, which, in themselves, may be symbolic of the tensions which are about to be discharged.

I don’t know about you, but reading some brief summaries of Burke’s theory in the context of Cole’s painting strongly suggests that his aesthetic has strong elements of evo-bio (before the fact, so to speak). Am I hallucinating, or like what?



P. S. You can read more about Gilpin and Burke and their influence on Romantic art theory here.

posted by Friedrich at August 10, 2003


Golf course architects make use of the Burke's dichotomy between the beautiful (undulating fairways and greens) and the sublime (lakes and canyons where a bad shot will be lost forever).

Posted by: Steve Sailer on August 11, 2003 2:52 AM

So what does that make of golf, exactly?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 11, 2003 12:00 PM

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