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William L. Coleman, PhD
Formerly Postdoctoral fellow in American Art, Department of Art History & Archaeology, Washington University in St. Louis

When the Anglo-American landscape painter Thomas Cole made his first visit to Italy in the summer of 1831, he embarked on intensive study not only of paintings and sculptures, as so many visiting artists had before him, but also of ancient and modern Italian architecture. In so doing he launched a new phase of his career in which he entered into dialogue with a transatlantic lineage of “painter-architects” that includes Michelangelo, Raphael, and Rubens—artists whose ambitions were not confined to canvas and who were involved extensively with the design and construction of villas and churches, among other projects. Cole was similarly engaged with building projects in the latter decades of his short career, but a substantial body of surviving writings, drawings, and, indeed, buildings testifying to this fact has been largely overlooked by scholars, presumably because it does not fit neatly with the myth of Cole as “the father of the Hudson River School” of American landscape painting.1 For an artist whose chief contribution, we have been told, is the argument his work offers for landscape painting as an art of the intellect rather than of mere mechanical transcription of outward appearances, his abiding commitment to the science of building and his professional aspirations in that direction are hard to explain. The gulf that divides his allegorical views of the northeastern United States from his prize-winning proposal for the new Ohio Statehouse, for example, might seem too great to be bridged. However Aqueduct near Rome (1832) shows the symbiotic relationship between Cole’s architectural vision and his better-known work in oil on canvas. In fact this iconic painting marks a moment of transition, when the artist made a distinct turn to the built environment for his subject matter and came to conceive of himself as a public artist-intellectual for whom it was a duty to speak on matters of taste, as much in architecture as in painting. Aqueduct near Rome testifies to the coexistence of seemingly contradictory impulses in Cole’s work: celebration of the allegorical possibilities of a ruin in the landscape, and reflection on technological and stylistic features of a work of architecture.

Cole visited Italy on two occasions: from June 1831 to August 1832 and again from November 1841 through May 1842.2 On these trips he made many paintings with architectural subjects, of which The Temple of Segesta with the Artist Sketching (c. 1842), now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is an especially intriguing example for the self-portrait it includes of Cole in the process of diligent study of the built environment. The Italian months were among the most productive of Cole’s career and resulted in dozens of finished canvases. In an account of the first trip he sent to William Dunlap for publication in the latter’s 1834 History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, Cole wrote, “what I believe contributes to the enjoyment of being [in Italy] is the delightful freedom from the common cares and business of life—the vortex of politics and utilitarianism, that is forever whirling at home,” and he lamented, “O that I was there again, and in the same spirit!”3 This passion for Italy in general, and Rome in particular, was unusual in the period, when most American landscape painters in Europe had their strongest ties to the London art world, as is true of Frederic Edwin Church and Jasper Francis Cropsey, for example.4 Cole’s Italophilia is particularly surprising in the context of rising anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment in the same years that caused many American tourists to identify with the religious and political structures of northern Europe in contrast to those of the south.5 Cole’s own comments about Italy and the paintings he produced there demonstrate that he found ways to reconcile the ideologies bound up with Italy in his lifetime with his own politics and religious faith.

Aqueduct near Rome is among the largest and most accomplished of the paintings Cole produced during his first Italian period. A commission from Charles Lyman of Waltham, Massachusetts, who was in Rome conducting the traditional gentleman’s grand tour of Europe and its antiquities, this imposing canvas depicts, with some embellishment, one of the more spectacular ancient sites a grand tourist might have been expected to visit and study in the pursuit of cosmopolitanism and refinement: the Claudian Aqueduct.6 This was one of Ancient Rome’s major sources of fresh water, completed in the first century CE and extending nearly fifty miles east of the city with arches one hundred feet high in places. Because portions of the aqueduct could be found then, as now, still standing within the borders of Rome itself, this subject was readily accessible from the rooms Cole rented on the Pincian Hill, reputedly the same apartment that the seventeenth-century French landscape painter Claude Lorrain had used in his day. While Cole also painted tried-and-true subjects like the Colosseum, an aqueduct bore particular promise for a landscape painter as a ruin that by its very definition extended out from the city into the surrounding landscape. Cole selected a view that prioritizes the Tor Fiscale, a private watchtower that was built into the aqueduct by the Annibaldi family in the thirteenth century.7 This structure acts as a repoussoir, guiding the viewer’s eye into the picture and to the succession of arches that stretches onward, seemingly to infinity. Moreover, Cole’s composition emphasizes the anomalous stone arch built into the stout masonry wall of this tower, literally foregrounding the arch as an engineering technology and clarifying the basic building unit of the aqueduct in the process. For Cole, the Claudian Aqueduct seems to have been a compelling subject as an accessible and well-preserved example of the achievements of classical architecture and engineering. The ruined state of the structure and the greenery creeping up its towers do not belie his interest in it as a feat of building. This is evident from the disciplined architectural draftsmanship that went into constructing the canvas, as can be seen in the numerous preparatory sketches he made (now in the Detroit Institute of Arts), while the fallen Ionic capital in the left foreground urges reflection not only on the aesthetic possibilities that were available to a builder of first-century Rome but also to the contemporary “dilemma of style” in nineteenth-century New York that sought new orders and ways of building in the service of a distinctly American architecture.8 Greenery creeps over fallen columns and capitals as nature begins to reclaim this feat of man, while a solitary foreground goat and a distant shepherd and his flock put the greenery to use. A skull also in the left foreground reinforces the message of the fragility of human deeds in the face of centuries and millennia, urging a viewer to reflect on the passage of time and on one’s own mortality. In this fusion of real and ideal, of studied observation with allegorical possibility, Cole foreshadows structures he would include in his plan for the Ohio Statehouse and the visionary city of his Course of Empire paintings just four years later. The sheer size of the canvas, one of the largest Cole had attempted to this date, also anticipates that famous series, which, significantly, envisions the rise and fall of an imagined classical civilization by means of architecture. In this monumental painting of a monumental subject, Cole begins to explore architecture’s ability to tell stories and convey moral messages while also studying matters of style and form that allow a building to remain the subject of admiration millennia after its completion.

When Cole suggested to Charles Lyman that this subject was worthy of painting, the market for images of ruins in European art was well established, intrinsically linked with the grand tour. While it was commercially savvy for Cole to convey in paint the poetic and practical lessons a wealthy tourist might take from visiting the Claudian Aqueduct with a learned guide, this was a rather unusual move for the artist in a career distinguished by his advocacy for less well-trodden subject matter. In his influential “Essay on American Scenery,” the artist admitted that the seemingly new and uncivilized American landscape might be perceived as “destitute of those vestiges of antiquity, whose associations so strongly affect the mind” in Europe.9 (Needless to say, humans had lived and built and fought and died on the lands he depicted in America for millennia, but the story of native peoples is elided in his remarks.) However, he argued that the American landscape is morally superior precisely because it has “no ruined tower to tell of outrage” past under a feudal system and that the American landscape also had rich historical associations thanks to the consecration of new scenes by the Revolutionary War. While Cole’s American paintings work to cultivate a taste for an altogether wilder landscape, often devoid of the traces of European civilization, he was versatile enough to make strategic use of the tropes of European painting in this canvas. His success in this effort is evident from the verdict of the prominent man of letters Nathaniel Parker Willis, who called Aqueduct near Rome “one of the finest landscapes ever painted.”10 For Willis it seems this canvas was a sign of the achievements of American art in taking on the Europeans at their own game and a welcome example of the fusion of topographical fact with allegorical import that Cole himself called “a higher style of landscape.”11 That Cole judged his market well and succeeded in the effort is also clear from the fact that Cole received a commission to repeat the composition a decade later; a second view (now in the Wadsworth Atheneum), nearly identical except for its slightly smaller format, was completed during a return visit in 1843.12

When he made this picture, the thirty-year-old artist had attained a national reputation and a degree of financial security and aspired to play a larger role in the cultural life of the United States. In addition to his work in painting and print, he began publishing essays, short stories, and poetry in a variety of periodicals and corresponding with professors and gentleman amateurs around the country about subjects ranging from fossil collecting to the original polychrome decoration of the Parthenon. However, architecture was his most sustained outside interest for the final two decades of his short life. He wrote an intriguing unpublished “Letter to the Publick on the Subject of Architecture,” made designs for the Washington Monument and a variety of country houses, designed a new church that was built for his parish in Catskill, New York, and won third prize in the competition to design the Ohio Statehouse, with his exterior design playing a major role in the structure that stands in Columbus today.13 Cole went so far as to list himself as an architect in various New York City directories in the 1830s, and he seriously considered launching a joint architectural practice with his nephew.14 Certain themes emerge from these traces of his architectural thought, prominent among them a suspicion of English styles, a fondness for Italian models (both ancient and modern), and a concern with permanence and the judgments of the future. When Cole approached the subject of the Claudian Aqueduct, he did so as an autodidact of the science of building, with a growing knowledge of the feats of engineering and design that made the structure possible, and with an admiration of the work that had gone into making this structure stand the test of time, even if in a ruined state. The imposing form that remained standing in Cole’s day, and in ours, encourages reflection on its original grandeur and suggests the possibility that modern buildings, too, could continue to stand, and to mean, for centuries if built judiciously and tastefully. These are the same principles he addressed in his writings on architecture and sought to apply to his own building projects in subsequent years. Aqueduct near Rome shows a Euro-American artist speaking a pan-European vernacular and participating in a transatlantic tradition of painter-architects, for whom a well-formed building could be a means of transmitting artistic principles to a far wider public than painting alone could reach.

  • 1 See for example Elliot S. Vesell, “Introduction,” in Louis Legrand Noble, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole, ed. Elliot S. Vesell (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1964), xv.
  • 2 Ellwood C. Parry III, The Art of Thomas Cole: Ambition and Imagination (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1988), 375–78.
  • 3 Thomas Cole, as quoted in William Dunlap, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, ed. Frank W. Bayley and Charles E. Goodspeed, vol. 3 (Boston: C. E. Goodspeed, 1918), 154–55. First published 1834 by George P. Scott and Co.
  • 4 While Cole perceived a chilly reception from London artists, Church and Cropsey were more enthusiastically welcomed. On the English reception of Church’s Heart of the Andes (1859), see Jennifer Raab, Frederic Church: The Art and Science of Detail (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 59. On the English reception of Cropsey’s The Backwoods of America (1858), see Bernard Bonario, “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow: Jasper F. Cropsey’s The Backwoods of America,” RACAR: Revue d’art canadienne / Canadian Art Review 9, no. 1/2 (1982), 9–20.
  • 5 See Daniel Kilbride, Being American in Europe, 1750–1860 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).
  • 6 On the grand tour in general, see Edward Chaney, The Evolution of the Grand Tour: Anglo-Italian Cultural Relations since the Renaissance (London: Frank Cass, 1998). The Aqua Claudia was included among popular sites for travelers in eighteenth-century guidebooks. See for example Thomas Nugent, The Grand Tour, vol. 3 (London: S. Birt, 1749), 256.
  • 7 On the Annibaldi, see Sandro Carocci, La nobiltà romana nel medioevo (Rome: École française de Rome, 2006).
  • 8 See J. Mordaunt Crook, The Dilemma of Style: Architectural Ideas from the Picturesque to the Post-Modern (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
  • 9 Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery,” The American Monthly Magazine 1 (January 1836), 1–12.
  • 10 Nathaniel Parker Willis, Pencillings by the Way, vol. 1 (London: John Macrone, 1835), 178.
  • 11 Letter from Thomas Cole to Robert Gilmor, May 21, 1828, as quoted in Noble, Life and Works, 64.
  • 12 This work was one half of a commissioned pendant pair. The other painting is Evening in Arcadia (1843), also now in the Wadsworth Atheneum.
  • 13 The manuscript of this essay can be found in the Thomas Cole Papers in the New York State Library, box 1, folder 4. This document is transcribed in full as Appendix C of my doctoral dissertation, “Something of an Architect: Thomas Cole and the Country House Ideal” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2015), 220–22. On Cole’s church project, see Parry, Ambition and Imagination, 242–43; and Abbott Lowell Cummings, “The Ohio State Capitol Competition,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 12, no. 2 (May 1953): 15–18.
  • 14 See for example Longworth’s American Almanack, New-York Register, and City Directory (New York: David Longworth, 1834–35), 201. The proposed architectural venture with his nephew William Henry Bayless is mentioned in a letter of October 20, 1839, from Cole to William Apthorp Adams in the Thomas Cole Papers, New York State Library, box 1, folder 4.