For all its moral seriousness and formal ingenuity, “Course of Empire” never really rises above being a didactic machine. (And the otherwise splendid Met installation does it no favors by crowding it into a corner.) Dramatizing a similar message far more effectively is the single large 1836 painting titled “View From Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow).” From a God’s-eye height we look down at the spot where the Connecticut River, flowing around an island-like land mass, creates a question-mark shape known as the “Oxbow.”
The painting divides vertically into two atmospheric halves. To the left is a wild storm-soaked tangle of old trees and dense vegetation; to the right, far below, a flat terrain of treeless, square-cut fields running back to distant hills scarred by clear-cutting. The wilderness looks unkept and threatening, but seethes with life. The flat land, though cultivated and presumably fertile, feels as bare and bland as a tract-house town. And in the foreground of the picture is a tiny self-portrait of Cole at his easel. He turns away from his canvas and looks right at us, as if to say: Here are the alternatives; you choose.
Cole chose wilderness, and in doing so disappeared himself for more than a century. When he died suddenly, at 47, in 1848, he was widely mourned; pictorial tributes from fellow artists piled up, the most famous being Asher Brown Durand’s 1849 “Kindred Spirits,” which shows Cole and the nature-poet William Cullen Bryant sharing thoughts in a paradisal Catskill Mountain glen. (The picture is back in town for the first time since it was sold by the New York Public Library to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas in 2005.)
Yet within a few years, Cole was all but forgotten. And the colonizing of Nature he so hated — hyped as Manifest Destiny — was being cheered on by artists who claimed to revere him, Durand among them.
Politically, Cole’s art is conservative, but it’s also work that challenges and complicates that term. And the Met show — organized by Elizabeth Kornhauser, curator of American painting and sculpture at the Met, and Tim Barringer, professor of art history at Yale University, with Chris Riopelle, a curator at the National Gallery, London — is precisely about complication. And just as Cole is most realistically and revealingly seen and judged against the background of his time, so is the exhibition, coming as it does in this confounding MAGA moment.