Category Archives: Art History

Thomas Cole, the Past, the Present, and the Course of Empire

More can be written about the American painter Thomas Cole than I could possibly wrap up in a single post, especially with my extremely limited knowledge of him and his work, but I do know some things worth sharing and hope they may lead you elsewhere for your own private elucidation.

Thomas Cole is considered the father of the Hudson River School of American painting. Cole is known for realistic (I would say hyperrealistic) representations of the American landscape and wilderness. Students of the Hudson River School are marked heavily by his hand and not a small dash of romanticism. This leads to a series of paintings from various artists that are instantly recognizable by their composition and execution as part of the school. Many people notice something familiar about Cole’s (and Hudson River School painters’) work without being totally aware of their connection or provenance.

Thomas Cole February 1, 1801-February 11, 1848 

 One of Cole’s most famous works is a series of five paintings that follow the rise and fall of a civilization. Called The Course of Empire, the series maintains a single cliff as a point of reference as time marches through the highs and lows of life. This has always been one of my favorite series for not only the depiction of a story line but also the process of geological time. The cliff, silent and steadfast watches empires rise and fall. Of course if the series was repainted today the cliff would be blasted away and a prairie would have to reclaim the parking lot that was left.

The Savage State 

 The first in the series shows wilderness at its finest. The Savage State is in a state of savagery. A place ready for the conquering. The tepee and smoke on the right offset the mountain man on the left.

The Arcadian or Pastoral State 

 What a difference a little working on the land makes. Settlers have cleared the land for pasture for their sheep, they are working the land for their own purposes wrestling it from the wilds off nature. Some dancing and boat-building round out the people in the scene. The striking inclusion of a monolithic temple harkens to the pre-super-civilization of the peaceful Grecians. To me it has always looked more like Stonehenge, but it is hard to ignore the Greco-Roman influence in the white marble superstructures of the remaining paintings in the series.

The Consummation of Empire 

 Well, it just doesn’t get any better than this, right? The apex of civility. The statuary, the architecture, the fountains, the artwork, the people, it is all here. Throngs of people look on as ships fill the harbor. The lone cliff faces a man-made mountain of carved marble across the river. What is the worst that could happen.


 A long way from the Indian camps on the banks of the river, the city has been sacked, raped and pillaged. Fantastic arched bridges have been destroyed, fire and death reign. One damsel flinging herself over the parapet to protect her honor. The headless warrior is enormous, and striking, even headless. Leading forward, its shield no use in protecting his city. The last time we looked at this in class it finally occurred to me who this *really* is. Thomas Cole, like most men in his position, and some other painters we have discussed here, were staunch anti-democrats–especially Jacksonian democracy. With Old Hickory being one of our military presidents, it is pretty obvious who Cole wanted to portray not only as a soldier, but a headless one ever charging forward. (That may not be the case, but Cole is pretty straightforward with his natural order of things when a fully democratic state is achieved in lieu of an educated elite controlling the republic (Whigs).


 The last rays of the day illuminate what is left of the city on the hill.  Ruins reclaimed by nature, on its way back to the savage state. Birds now nest on the towering ornately carved pillar, and the man-made marble mountain has lost its competition with nature’s cliff. No boats sail the harbor, there is nothing to trade, and no one to trade with. The end has arrived, nature slowly takes over. These, completed in 1836 after three years of working only added to the mystique of similar images that John Lloyd Stephens painted of the lost Mayan world in his Incidents of Travel series that ranged from 1837 to 1843.

Cole returned to this chrono-story painting in 1838 in his two part “The Past” and “The Present” paintings featuring a European castle in place of Greco-Roman white marble.

The Past

 A picturesque jousting tournament with a meadow filled with spectators, speeding chargers, tents, and various forms of ye olde  faire merriment. Opulence and wealth cannot be overstated. I am not 100% convinced this isn’t a pseudo-next in the series above with the lookout tower in the background placed on the old cliff overlooking the river.

The Present

 More ruins, this time medieval and not ancient, but ruins nonetheless. While the scene has digressed, savagery has not fully returned. The shepherd is back, perhaps maintaining a herd on the same glade that the original Arcadian sheep grazed.

Regardless of whether they are a continuation of the Empire series or not, this tiny cross section of Thomas Cole’s work gives you some idea of the high romanticism that shaped the Hudson River School of painting. More than just representations of the real or political commentary, Cole weaves hyperrealism with political philosophy to literary paint a portrait of time’s endless march forward (and perhaps with at least some degree of cyclic change).

Defining a Genre: George Caleb Bingham and Genre Painting

When the American Art Union set out to up the standards of American artwork it sought specifically scenes of everyday life in addition to the great high-minded historical painting. One artist capitalized on this trend of “everyday life” paintings in ways few others had or have.

George Caleb Bingham

Born in Virginia Bingham was entirely self taught through copy books and studying prints of old masters. In a way he perfected his triangular composition to an extent that you can usually see the triangles before the painting.

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri.
Nature, Half-breed, European.
The wild animal is one of the big contentions in American Western Art.
It is obviously a cat, a fox, a bearcub, right? Obviously.

He began his work more or less with a series of flatboatman paintings. Bu the time he was painting these scenes of jolly flatboatman, or raftsmen playing cards, steamboats had all but replaced the flatbottom boat as the means of transport of goods and people along the river. Industrious boatmen still made a living as lighters–boats that would take on the stores of a steamboat that had run aground on a sandbar in order to make it lighter to refloat, or wood boats–periodical filling stations for the boiler fuel that paddled the steamships.

Bingham’s images may seem simple, but they bely a keen observation to politics, a topic which Bingham held more than a passing interest. He ran as a whig and was defeated on decision, he was forever suspicious os squatter’s right to vote (temporary votes at best and temporary democratic votes at worst), as well as democrats reluctance to provide funding for improvements such as roads and removing snags and clearing sandbars along the river to aid in expedient and issue-less trade transportation. This background makes Bingham’s Lighter painting more politically charged than it seems at first glance.

The Jolly Boatman. Merriment dancing, giant triangular composition.
Jolly Flatboatman in Port. Steamships looming in the background.
Bingham also reused characters–Quite a bit actually.
Raftsmen Playing Cards. Whittling, drinking waiting. 

The Woodboat. Steamship in the distance. Refueling stations. 
Another Woodboat family. The sun is setting on the image and their way of life
Lighter Relieving the Steamboat Aground. Bingham’s commentary of Jackson and the dirty penny pinching democrats. 

Watching the Cargo. Another steamship in peril. Once the ship was lightened and refloated it could be reloaded, until then, someone had to protect the cargo. 

Bingham also portrayed simple western life as well as laconic riverlife that followed cultural heroes like Mark Fink and the literary waterworld of Mark Twain.

Shooting for a Beef. Like a turkey shoot, but a much larger price.

Bingham’s Shooting for a Beef depicted a standard western fair of folks meeting at the civic center of the town (they are at the Post Office). A little bit of civilization settling down and making something of themselves. It is also a fine example of the growing roles that dogs played in Bingham’s paintings. He would use them as a quasi Greek Chorus to set the mood or tone of an image without specifically setting it within his human characters. 
The Squatters on the other hand offers nothing to be trusted, admired, or appreciated. They are temporary exploiters of the land (and democracy). Even the dog want’s to know what you want. 
The Squatters. Don’t you get the feeling you are bothering them? 
 Bingham’s election series are as powerful political commentary as any text from the mid 19th century. He follows the backslapper and handshaker from the dark rooms into the honest open, to the public debates, the election and the final announcement. 
Country Politician. Ripe with backroom promises and uninterested parties not to mention the little (little?) American Buddha of politics. 
Canvassing for a Vote. out of doors and on the road, Bingham repeats his earlier composition with a little more well to do voter, road-weary politician, Buddha of Politics, uninterested window-gazer, and one thoroughly bored canine. It does feel more open, if not necessarily more honest. 
Stump Speaking. The town is all out, but not all interested. Some AAU critics claimed this was “too busy.” In the end though the Art Union paid $350 for this painting which was the highest ever paid for a Bingham.  
The County Election. Drinks are given for votes, votes are given to drunks (see the man helping his friend in line) swearing in, hat tips, bible oaths, it is all here. Even the literal marginalization of the African American serving the drinks. Something that Bingham will use to greater effect in his last election painting.  

Verdict of the People is almost as busy as his Stump Speaking. See the Jolly Boatman on the right, red neckerchief and all? The central figure is the forlorn African American man situation directly under the flag. Unable to vote, his future is at the mercy of his fellow man. Less obvious are the women on the balcony in the top right waiving their “Remember the Women” banner. They are serving watermelon, and that guy does have on at least three hats. 

 Bingham’s depictions of the simple life were anything but. They are full of symbolism, allegory, and outright political commentary. Something to remember as you peruse art museum and look at the various collections. Remember what was going on at the time these were created, who was creating them (Bingham’s Whig disposition influences a lot), and try to situate them historically. You will get more out of them than simple aesthetics these series and this artist are some of the strongest examples of what the AAU was trying to accomplish and sum up AAU President Prosper Wetmore’s quote which I will end with:

“Pictures are more powerful than Speeches”
–Prosper Wetmore
President of the
American Art Union

PS: For those close enough to make it to Fort Worth the fabulous Amon Carter Museum of American Art is premiering a George Bingham exhibit called Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River on October 2, 2014. The exhibit will run until January 18, 2015 and will then travel on to Saint Louis Art Museum (Feb 22-May 17, 2015) and close out in the MET in New York (June 15-September 20, 2015). There will be examples of Bingham’s copious sketches on hand next to the finished product. Looks like a grand view into the workings of his mind. It is my plan to make it down there next month and hopefully have an update. 

The Artist and the Sportsman

If you are ever presented with a painting featuring some buckskin clad fur trappers in one or more familiar romantic composition, serve up a guess that it was painted by Alfred Jacob Miller and you will be correct more often than not. In fact, Miller was the only painter of his generation to paint the fur trade, so if you know that the painting in question was created in the early 19th century, you would be right 99.99% of the time.

roasting the buffalo hump rib

Bourgeois and his squaw

Quintessential and typical composite of the mountain man/trapper
The real fun (at least for me) comes with Miller’s artist renderings of the hunting and traveling experiences of his patron William Drummond Stewart. The 2nd born to scottich nobility came west to lead the adventurers life and kill everything that moved. He had met Prince Max and Karl Bodmer some years before and may have gotten the idea of hiring an artist accompanist from Max’s scientific expedition. Bodmer was there to document the science of Prince Max’s expedition while Miller was on hand to document the sport of Stewart’s and the last of the largest gathering of traders in the United States. Stewart had friends all over the continent and entertained many, including high ranking Native Americans in a large striped tent complete with Persian rugs. 
William Drummond Stewart, Scottish Nobility, sportsman, and Miller’s patron

Antione Clement, hunter, guide, scout, etc for the Stewart expedition
Miller painted a few versions of this story. 
Shaman said they could fight the whiteman but not strike the first blow, Stewart held his cool and his men and avoided war. He did move enough to shake his stir the flap o n his coat. 

Pipestone, Peeved Buffalo, and Painted Centaurs

Many pages have been written about George Catlin. The grand total falls somewhere close to an acre of  paper timber (I completely made that up so don’t go putting it in your Catlin notes). That hyperbole is, in all actuality, probably a low estimate. Many more megabytes of data have been used on blogs and digital storage of some of his famous Indian paintings. If you ever get a chance you should look more in depth than here about his life, his showmanship, his critics, and his art. One day I hope to have a short post with some of his South America art too, but that is for a later time.

These are not a representative sample of his work, nor are they his best, or most reproduced. They are a few that we have seen in the course I am taking that have stood out to me for various reasons.

He Who Outjumps All 
A lot of grandiose and romantic literature will refer to (some of) the Indians as the people of the horse in some manner as this “and horse and rider moved as one.” Here, Catlin has painted that. It is almost centaur-like in the combination. (Interesting anatomical sidenote: Centaurs would have two sets of ribs.) The headresses, the flowing of the tail and hair, the fringe and the mane are all this surreal symbiotic existence between man and beast. The horse is also dressed up in finery that is far from traditions Indian style. The breast collar, the rump cover, and even the bridle are all of Spanish origin. Here, secondary to the original intent (I say as if I have talked personally with Catlin about it) is evidence of a far reaching trade relationship between the high plains and the American Southwest. Now, you may or may not know how good the Spanish are (were) with horses. Many even fashioned their own versions of Spanish gear. 
The Little Spaniard
Staying with our Spanish theme for one more image is Catlin’s The Little Spaniard or His-oo-san–chees. This spanish child raised into full Indianhood strikes a traditional Greco-Roman pose with all his accessories. The fun behind this one is the name. Take a moment and say pronounce the name outloud, slowly, and then more quickly and see how long it takes you to realize it is Catlin phonetics for Hizo Sanchez. 
Buffalo Bull Grazing

Here Catlin has captured a Buffalo (yes I know it is Bison, there is a Far Side comic for you people) in a general state of agitation, and most definitely not grazing. At some point Catlin had wounded one in a hunt such that it could not charge or cause the artist harm and he circled it on horseback sketching the various moods. When the model grew tired, or held a pose longer than Catlin required he would throw something at him to agitate him more. He mentioned doing this with his hat. I am sure they later ate the buffalo that was killed as this was before the railroad sport and bio-warfare on the Indians dropped their numbers to critical extinction levels.

The Pipestone Quarry
(don’t you love how someone can copyright an image that was painted almost two centuries ago?)

 I end this with a salute to those who study the smallest bits of the earth. Catlin was fortunate enough to see the quarries from whence the raw material for making the famous Indian pipes were created. The pipestone, alternately pipeclay is, for those keeping geological score, an argillite, that is a metamorphosed mudstone. Here Catlin has caught the scene at the mine, in a rough and almost martian landscape. The previous shards and layers split out around the quarry site with the hughe rock formations off to the right (note the tiny figure for scale, I think he is even pointing at it for you). These particular quarry was the first ever seen but white eyes and was in what is present day Minnesota. Other veins exist in Utah and a few other places, but this specific earthly concoction now bears the name Catlinite in the artist’s honor. Once again art and science come together reminding is why we have Colleges of Arts AND Sciences not Colleges of Arts OR Sciences.

Now go spend some time on Google Images looking at all of Catlin’s works.

Personification of America(s)

During the Golden Age of Exploration, maps conveyed as much personality of a place as it did the detail about its physical layout. The continents were usually personified in art, (think Rubens in the early 17th century, among others)

Rubens has the four continents embraced by their four respected rivers, Africa-The Nile, Europe-The Danube, Asia-The Ganges, and America in the back with The Rio de la Plata. Which for those unfamiliar with South American geography is the “Silver River” that empties into the Atlantic at Buenos Aires. As there was more colonial success in South America at the time, and Rubens was a diplomat in service of the Spanish crown (among others) it is natural that he is more familiar with South America than El Norte, the symbolism remains the same though. 
Europeanized or not, the personification of America began as a Minerva figure, but quickly took on the guise of an Indian Princess usually seen with, often times riding, some dangerous reptile. As in this frieze on a German building. 

My favorite really is Adrien Colleart II’s mid-18th-century version where she, armed with bow and ax is riding a giant armadillo. 

As for the subtle warnings to explorers, Henry Popple included some hard to miss “here be dragons” moments. The ever present alligator is near the princess, as well as a monkey, and and armed warrior. In case that wasn’t explicit enough (apparently Popple, knew his audience), she has her foot on a (ver European-looking) severed head that has been pierced with an arrow. To be fair, this map is the west coast of British Honduras and not specifically the North American continent, but the allusion is the same. 

As relationships deteriorated (read as the Europeans lost control), the Princess grew ever more threatening, until she was at least replaced by a male indian warrior. This wasn’t just artistic license and/or personal choice as a religious edict called for the replacement of the female figures with that of a male.

When the West was North

It is probably better to speak of the West at this point as simply the Frontier. On the American continent the East was even at once considered West. But it is more than a direction. Colonial frontiers such as New York and Ohio, are almost laughable as “West” by the standards of the Montanans and any of the video game characters that you managed to get to the end of the Oregan Trail without dying of dysentery or starving to death. Even the idea of West as being westerly falls into disarray when you look at it from the perspective of New Spain and Mexico. For them the West was North, into Texas (and even farther).

This notion goes overlooked by many because there are not the copious amounts of art that depict encounters between the Spaniards and the Indians and/or Mexicans, or the Mexicans and Spaniards against the Indians, or Mayan, Aztec, and Incan civilizations. The bulk of European (or at least European style) art depict the French and Indian Wars that ravaged the colonial holdings of France and England in what is now the northern United States and southern Canada. Even literature followed this suit. I still do not know of a spanish equivalent of “The Last of the Mohicans.”
There are a few things that we do have, however and they paint a vivid picture of the American Southwest, or the Mexican Northwest depending on your point of view. One (or really, two) is the Segesser Hide Paintings that are housed in the New Mexico History Museum in downtown Santa Fe. 
The other is a piece of religious and historical art. “The Destruction of Mission San Saba in the Province of Texas and the Martyrdom of the Fathers Alonso de Terreros, Joseph Santiesteban” was completed in the 1760s. To have room for the subjects and the title, the piece is an enormous 83 by 115 inches (6’11” x 9’7″) and tells the story of the destruction of a Spanish Mission. So, there’s that. 

Learning to See

       The beauty of finally making it to the “build your own” portion of a PhD program is the ability to make connections outside your department. Having “mastered” the basic foundations of your discipline it is now time to build onto it using materials and tools from far and wide. This is where you carve out your academic niche and bring the history, perspective, and baggage that only you possess. The plan here is to share some of the highlights, links, and images from my foray into Art History of the American West. Hopefully these will be short(er), and entertaining if not illuminating. Plus rehashing what we went over for you will help me remember things.

I have always enjoyed art. I hasten to add “good” just to bother those people that think art is completely subjective and that a geometric abstract is just as “good” as a perfectly represented landscape or natural history painting. For me, it is not. I enjoy realism, and allegory. But I am aware that there are artists who have shaken off the fetters of artistic confinement and have collectively given the art world a raspberry. Images and imagery are now, and mostly forever been important. They exist on millennia old cave walls for instance, and they are still important today. The impact their manipulation and broadcast from general photoshop to official propaganda cannot be understated.

Art history should be required courses for whatever subject you are studying and at whatever level you are working. At the very least it should be strongly suggested as electives. It is nearly impossible to understand the modern money flow in science and research without understanding early scientific patronage. That, in turn, is almost impossible to unravel without understanding the patronage system of art–that is official, high-class, royal, courtly art.

For this quick installment I want to share two videos and some thoughts on Art in the American West. You may or may not be aware that Western art has been held to a higher standard of accuracy than any other genre. It was imperative that the artists accurately represent what was “out there” so those wanting to start a new life would have at least some idea of what was going to kill them.

In “The Death of General Wolfe” Benjamin West broke with the tradition of painting modern subjects in classical dress and poses. West kept the posing and dramatics but but everyone in period dress.

The biggest argument over this painting was the infamous moccasin incident. West had failed to put moccasins on the Indian (never mind the fact that the only Indian there fought against General Wolfe). In subsequent versions West painted a pair near the figure. Also forgivable was the inclusion of all his top ranking officers close by his side when he died. As mentioned in the video, this was no way to run an engagement. There is a lot going on to this, and it is useful to understand the period not only that the battle took place, but when the scene was painted and what politics were influencing the artist, was it a commission of some sort, etc. All these questions will help you learn to see a painting in contrast to simply looking at one.