Kindred Spirits (1849)
Bill Long 1/11/06
By Asher Durand; On Loan to the NGA from the Walton Family
I am inspired by the landscape paintings of Albert Bierstadt, drawn in by the grandeur of Thomas Moran's works, charmed by John Kensett's luminist masterpieces and excited by Martin Johnson Heade's clouds and haystacks. But only Thomas Cole's (1801-1848) work moves me to deep reflection, regret and newfound hope. I am almost a little embarrassed that Cole's work so touches me, since it its form is patently allegorical and its landscaped scenes of New York and New England obviously idyllic and not realistic. But in Cole's work is the seeds of Bierstadt's grand painting. One would even be on good ground by claiming that the artistic grandchildren of Cole are the Realists of the earliest 20th century--who knew how to paint the wretchedness of the human condition only because they had mastered the colors, shapes and use of light in Thomas Cole.
A Tribute To Cole
Thus I was delighted, in my recent trip to Washington, D.C. and the National Gallery of Art, to discover Asher Durand's 1849 painting Kindred Spirits, on loan from the Walton Family Foundation, prominently displayed in the American collection. In the year of Cole's sudden death (1848) New York collector Jonathan Sturges commissioned Asher Durand to paint a work which would depict the friendship of the romantic poet Willam Cullen Bryant and Cole. What resulted was a notable achievement of what would later be called the Hudson River School of American painting. It depicts the two men standing on an outcropping of rock, with two scenes from earlier Cole paintings (the 1826 Falls of Kaaterskill and the 1827 The Clove, Catskills) in the background. Sturges' inspiration for the idea of depicting the two friends as kindred spirits was the poem "Sonnet to Solitude" by John Keats:
"Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin'd,
Is my soul's pleasure; and sure it must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee."
After reading this Keats poem, from the early decades of the 19th century, the Christian hymn, "Blest be the Tie that Binds," came to mind. The words come from 1782, and it was arranged by the Boston hymn writer Lowell Mason in 1845. The first stanza runs:
"Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above."
Though Bryant's theology was much more Transcendentalist than that of the hymn, Cole adhered to a species of traditional Christianity which would have found the words appropriate.
Cole's The Voyage of Life (Finished, 1842)
One of Cole's paintings that never fails to move me, however, is the second in his four-painting epic entitled The Voyage of Life: Youth. This work shows the young man setting out with elation and hope on the river of life, with the angel surrounded by a golden halo on the riverbank. The angel bids the young man good-bye, but he is so caught up with his lofty ambitions and unbridled hopes that he doesn't even return the angel's adieu. His eyes are captivated by a dimly perceived shape in the clouds of a heavenly city which, in biblical terms, would have God as its builder and maker. The lure of the heavenly destination, surpassing in grandeur even the jutting mountains of the painting, lifts the young man's spirit as he travels the tranquil river toward his destination. As we know from the third of the four paintings (The Voyage of Life: Manhood), Cole would depict middle age as a time of fear and self-doubt, but now all we have is a clear shot to the heavenly palace.
So, Thomas Cole caught the rising spirit of the generation of the 1830s as it moved West in search of land, as it pursued its wealth and destiny in the promised land of America. American ambition needed a painter who could capture its longing just as it needed an author (authors) to describe its raw energy. It found the former in Thomas Cole. And we, nearly two centuries later, still drink deeply of his artistic genius. Asher Durand, in 1849, was just one of the first admirers.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long