First-ever show of American art at the Louvre spotlights minor Thomas Cole paintings

Detail from Thomas Cole’s “The Cross in the Wilderness” (1845), Courtesy of the Louvre Museum

There’s almost no American art in the Louvre. The prestigious Paris museum boasts of only four American paintings in its vast permanent collection. Is that a French problem or an American problem?

For the first time, the French museum is putting a modest spotlight on early American art with an exhibition titled “New Frontier: American Art Enters the Louvre.” But don’t worry about this peculiar little show turning into a runaway blockbuster. It contains only six paintings: four by Thomas Cole and one by Asher Durand, plus an obscure 1699 work by the equally obscure Frenchman Pierre-Antoine Patel.

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The show will run at the Louvre until April 16, then at the infamous Walton-family-backed Crystal Bridge Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas from May 12 to August 3 and finally at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta from September 22 to January 6, 2013.

Two of the paintings in this curious mini-exhibition, Cole’s 1825 painting The Tempest and Durand’s View Near Rutland, Vermont (1837) are from the High Museum. Two, Cole’s melodramatic The Cross in the Wilderness (1845) and the Patel, which portrays ancient ruins of classical columns in summer, are from the Louvre. Cole’s last completed painting, The Good Shepherd, is from Crystal Bridge. The final Cole painting, an 1826 landscape scene overshadowing small figures engaged in melodramatic action from The Last of the Mohicans, is owned by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Terra’s presence is no accident. A $600-million-in-assets foundation devoted to American arts, the Terra Foundation for American Art, with its headquarters in Chicago and an office in Paris, supports projects that encourage international scholarship on American art topics, as well as scholarly projects that explore American art in an international context. Terra sought recognition from the Louvre for American art. The Louvre found it prudent to bestow a limited, perhaps even niggardly amount of recognition in exchange for a fair amount of American money.

In Catskill, show curator Guillaume Faroult held forth on a recent Sunday afternoon in heavily accented English to a rapt audience of more than 100 persons. Terra associate curator Katherine Bourguignon also spoke. The two had traveled from Paris to Catskill, Thomas Cole National Historic Site board member David Barnes made clear in his perfervid introduction, specifically to speak about the exhibit that they had organized. “This is a big day, a big event,” exulted Barnes.

Guardians of classical French culture consent – for a price – to enlighten eager and moneyed Americans. It was ever thus.

“Nothing says you’ve arrived like having your own show at the Louvre,” said Barnes. The show is the first-ever by an American artist at the fabled museum.

A 64-page publication described as a “book” accompanies what the museum calls the “exhibition-dossier.” The book, called Thomas Cole: The Cross in the Wilderness, contains a 14-page essay by Faroult and one-page contributions by curators of American art at the High Museum, Crystal Bridges and Terra.

Faroult’s contribution leaned on the kind of self-referential lexicological distinctions beloved by Gallic philosophers. The title given of an 1843 sketch of the Cole work had originally been translated as La Croix dans le desert, which to Faroult didn’t quite convey the sense of the word “wilderness.” But the title given the work at the Louvre in 1975, La Croix dans la solitude, suggested too much romantic isolation rather than wilderness. It needed to be “reformulated.”

In arguing that La Croix dans le contree sauvage better conveyed the sense of wild land as yet untouched by man, and was therefore an improved French title for the Louvre’s painting, Faroult was treading a well-known path. Contree sauvage denoted “wild land, untouched by or unknown to man, away from the civilized world and Christianity.” Whether the mythical state of nature represented by pre-white-settlement America was a good or a bad thing was hotly debated in Thomas Cole’s time. As is well-known, Cole’s grand landscapes often included small figures of Native Americans dwarfed by the dramatic scenery around them. The scene that Cole depicts in The Cross in the Wilderness, wrote Faroult, “reflects the artist’s preoccupations, combining the pacific native Indian, an unspoiled natural environment and elements of the Christian faith.”

Outside the Louvre, Cross in the Wilderness is rarely considered one of Cole’s superior works. Eschewing dramatic scenery for an atmosphere of contemplation, the painting lacks the “delicious horror” that Edmund Burke explained was a requirement for sublimity. (“No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear,” wrote Burke.) Its crude symbolism – a cross bathed in sunlight and attended by a seated Indian under a domesticated-looking tree backed by a craggy downhill background – begs for its viewers’ attention rather than compelling that attention.

Five landscape paintings by the 24-year-old Thomas Cole created a sensation when they were placed in a New York show window in the fall of 1825. According to Faroult, these first works “herald the mastery of his future work.” The Louvre curator critiques the work with lukewarm praise. “The beginner’s clumsiness of style, particularly the abrupt transition between the planes, opportunely conforms to the features of the English sublime landscapes,” he writes. The artist is a work-in-progress: “The restricted palette…probably reflects the novice’s lack of confidence.”

From the perspective of almost 200 years of art history, however, these early works, whatever their formalist weaknesses, now stand out for reasons other than that they were the most emotionally accurate renderings of the American landscape yet painted. They turned out to be among the harbingers of a revolutionary painting style pioneered by John Constable and J. M. W. Turner in Britain and the Barbizon School (Corot, Millet, Henri Rousseau) in France. Like the young Cole, these artists drew more directly from nature, and added expressions of dynamism to painting through looser brushwork, daubs of intense color and less-distinct forms. It was an important development, and the young Thomas Cole – soon to be attracted for financial and emotional reasons to other concerns – contributed mightily to it.

David Barnes speculated that Cole would have been pleased with acceptance at the Louvre. Indeed he would have. One can only wonder how the pioneering painter would have felt had his work been shown in museums beside the work of Cézanne and Van Gogh, Picasso and Pollack. We’ll never know.

 

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