Thomas Cole’s 1837 painting of the sunset at the Arno, near Florence, is one of the best artistic testimonies of the American painter’s love for Europe, especially Italy and particularly the city of Florence. Cole’s glad journey to Europe, which he made between 1829 and 1832, was probably one of the painter’s events that contributed to his fame in Europe and the US (Dunlap 62). In this paper, a comprehensive analysis of this particular painting is done to develop an understanding of his work, including thematic analysis, a detailed review of his work in relation to his time and artistic movement as well as his view of the European and modern society from an artistic point of view.
First, a brief review of Thomas Cole’s background proves his ability to develop some of the best paintings in the US, which made America’s the most important landscape painter of modern times. Born in 1801 in Bolton, Lancaster, England, Thomas Cole migrated to the US with his family when he was about 17 and settled at Steubenville, Ohio (Noble 61). Here, Cole first met a certain British immigrant named Stein, a gifted but less professional painter. Stein’s impact on Thomas Cole resulted in the decision of the young boy to take painting as a full profession (Noble 61). Nevertheless, his first attempts to paint did not succeed because he was only trying to make portraits.
Thus, he shifted to landscape painting, hoping to make some impressions on the American audience. Around the year 1823, Cole moved to Pittsburg, where he settled briefly before moving again to Philadelphia in 1824 (Truettner and Wallach 23). Here, he embarked on drawing landscape, especially at the Pennsylvania Academy of fine arts, where he gained additional painting and drawing skills. Around 1825, Cole again moved to New York, where his parents and sister were living after leaving Ohio. One year later, he contributed to the foundation of the National Academy of Design in New York, an institution whose later contribution to the growth and development of the American arts remained profound (Avery 12).
It was in New York, where Cole received his first significant income from painting (Noble 121). He sold about five landscape paintings to a businessman and art admirer named George W. Bruen (Dunlap 98). Bruen agreed to finance Cole’s first journey to the Hudson Valley, where he painted the Catskill Mountain House and the Kaaterskill Falls. Two of his paintings from the Hudson Valley were also bought by a Seton and displayed at the American Academy of the fine arts. He also developed a number of other paintings that became popular in the US at a time when American arts were considered less significant compared to Europeans.
Scholars agree that Cole’s joyful journey to Europe had not only contributed to his artistic prowess but also proved his love for European arts, especially impressionism. He visited France, England, and Italy between 1829 and 1834. In London, he failed to find the impression he had expected, citing the “cold nature” of the artists he found in London. In addition, his visit to France did not impress him, especially because it was during the French revolution that made it impossible to visit the areas and individuals he had expected to meet (Noble 137).
Thus, Cole’s visit to Italy became important. He spent several months in Florence between 1831 and 1832. Here, his work on the “view of the Arno” became famous, which proved his artistic prowess both in Europe and in the US. Painted in 1837, the famous ‘View of the Arno, near Florence’ provides the spectator with a view of the Arno, one of the most significant features in Italy’s city of Florence. Currently, it is on display at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, USA. The institution is currently allowing viewers to take and use the photographs of the painting, which has made this analysis possible.
Measuring about 33¼ by 53¼ inches, the painting is made on Oil on Canvas, a popular style of the time (Avery 54). The painter’s theme is the view of the evening scenery along Italy’s river Arno. It depicts the river as viewed from a westward view, depicting the setting sun. His use of color, the theme, and light and shade, as well as harmony, proves his association with the impressionist artists of Europe, especially Italy.
First, it is worth noting that his theme is basically nature. It proves his appreciation of nature “as it is” rather than basing his work on imagination (Noble 61). This is one of the main features of impressionism. It depicts a soft meander of River Arno, with its natural banks interfered by man-made walls on both sides. The walls are made some meters away from the river, leaving spaces that are used as anchors for boats and other small vessels. On both sides of the Arno, green trees are seen rising above the walls and houses along the river valley. On the center of the painting, small boats and boatmen are seen on the banks as well as a few of them floating on the river.
In particular, one larger boat is seen on the center of the river, with two or three individuals navigating it. The clarity of the river water is evident. For instance, an image of a small tower on the wall on the right bank of the Arno depicted on the waters. It is also clear that the painter was sitting on high ground, probably on one of the houses on the right banks. The river, boats, and some other buildings are seen from a bird’s eye view.
Quite evidently, the painter’s use of color provides evidence of his close association with the impressionists. The light blue color is used to depict the distant mountains and the sky on the background as well as the sky above the painter. A mixture of different colors is used to depict the walls, houses, towers, and buildings around. Most of the roofs on the houses above the banks are red, while the walls are mainly cream and white, depicting the nature of stones and other materials commonly used in Florence. The green nature of the trees along the river, as well as those rising above the houses above the banks, is quite impressive and depicts the true nature of the Arno river valley.
Apart from color, light and shade are two important aspects of painting. In this painting, Cole used both light and shade to provide contrast between objects on the scenery. While the water, the sky, and the mountains on the background are well illuminated, the boats, people, and the ground on the banks are depicted with relatively dark colors. Similarly, the shadows cast on the river water by objects such as the trees, the walls, building as well as boats are dark, depicting the true nature of an evening scenery at the river valley. It is also clear that as the eye moves from the painter’s position towards the background of the scenery, the contrast between light and dark increases as light progressively replaces dark, which provides evidence that the painting was taken on an evening when the sun was setting (Truettner and Wallach 27).
Motion is an important feature of the painting. Cole has made the scenery appear quite harmonious. For instance, the trees stand upright with little movement, proving that there was no wind. In addition, the boats on the water look almost still, which says that they were moving softly across and along the river. It is difficult to determine the direction of the river because the water looks stagnant. The individuals on the boats, as well as those on the banks, are carrying their activities quite softly, with no evidence of vigorous movements involved.
When I saw the painting displayed on one of the walls inside the Worcester museum of arts, I was impressed by the painter’s ability to provide natural scenery. In particular, his theme of evening scenery along the Arno is quite attractive. One experiences the true nature of the scenery. The painting attracts the minds of the viewers, such that one feels as if he or she was on viewing the scenery from the painter’s point of view. In addition, the viewer is attracted by the harmonious nature of the scenery, whose beauty and aesthetic nature of the trees, walls, rivers, and the sky appear good for a leisure tour.
Avery, Kevin J. Thomas Cole (1801–1848). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Print.
Dunlap, William. History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design. New York, NY: New York Museum of Arts, 2008. Print.
Noble, Louis Legrand. The Life and Works of Thomas Cole. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010. Print.
Truettner, William and Alan Wallach. Thomas Cole: Landscape into History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. Print.