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Italian Scene. Composition
Date: 1833
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Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: Unframed: 37 1/2 × 54 1/2 in. (95.3 × 138.4 cm) Framed: 51 1/8 in. × 68 in. × 5 1/2 in. (129.9 × 172.7 × 14 cm)
Description: An idealized, composite view of Italian scenery in horizontal format incorporating landscape and archeological elements from both the Mediterranean coast and the Roman countryside. The dominant features of the landscape are the Roman ruins, roadside shrines, and enframing umbrella pine and cypress trees underneath a vast blue sky reflecting the artist's experience of Mediterranean light. In the left foreground, three Italian peasants, idealized as rustic primitives, dance underneath the large enframing tree.
Credit Line: Gift of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts
Object Number: 1858.19
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Cole painted this work shortly after returning from a trip to Europe from 1829 to 1832. The artist traveled to England, France, and Italy; he spent several months in Florence and later visited Rome. Cole responded strongly to the Italian landscape and particularly to its ruins, producing numerous sketches. In 1833 he met the wealthy merchant Luman Reed, whose first commission for Cole was an Italian landscape. The artist seized the opportunity to impress his new patron with a rich mixture of the motifs that had engaged him there.

Cole created a serene, harmonious composition that shows in influence of the seventeenth-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain. At the left an umbrella pine shades a ruined temple, and peasants dance before it, blissfully unaware that it signals the transitory nature of human glory. At the right a young man leans against a broken column, perhaps, with Cole, contemplating the passing of civilizations (though the artist added a comic note in the goat behind him that is trying to pull his coat down from the pillar). Beyond him is a crumbling aqueduct. In spite of signs of life in the distance, such as the small town on the lakeshore and sailboats on the water, Cole presented a somber view of Italy as an exemplar of decline. He affirmed his intentions by attaching the following verse from Samuel Rogers' poem "Italy" to the painting:

"Oh Italy, how beautiful thou art!
Yet I could weep, for thou art lying, alas!
Low in the dust, and they who come admire thee,
As we admire the beautiful in death."

The artist and critic William Dunlap recalled that after seeing the painting, Reed asked Cole the price and Cole ventured, "I shall be satisfied if I receive $300, but I should be gratified if the price is fixed at $500." Reed replied, "You shall be gratified," thus beginning a liberal and productive, if all too brief, partnership. The painting was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1834 and received enthusiastic praise from the New York Evening Post, which called the picture "the best that has ever passed from Mr. Cole's easel," and American Monthly Magazine agreed that it was "glorious."

Provenance:

Luman Reed, d. 1836; Mrs. Luman Reed, New York, 1836-44; New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1844-58.

Bibliography:

Barringer, Tim, Gillian Forrester, Sophie Lynford, Jennifer Raab, and Nicholas Robbins. Picturesque and Sublime: Thomas Cole's Trans-Atlantic Inheritance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Clark, Lewis Gaylord, ed. The Knickerbocker, Vol. III, No. 5, May, 1834, pp. 399-400.

Craven, Wayne, "Thomas Cole and Italy," The Magazine Antiques, Vol. 114, November 1978, p. 1016-7.

Craven, Wayne, "Luman Reed, Patron: His Collection and Gallery," The American Art Journal, Vol. XII, No. 2, Spring 1980, p. 50.

Dunlap, William, A History of the Rise and Progress of The Arts of Design in the United States, A Reprint of the Original 1834 Edition with a New Introduction by James Thomas Flexner, 1969, Vol. 2, Part 2, New York: Dover Publications, p. 367.

Foshay, Ella M., Mr. Luman Reed's Picture Gallery: A Pioneer Collection of American Art, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990, pp. 45, 57-8, 73, 122-3, 126-7, 130.

The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851, ed. with an introduction by Bayard Tuckerman,
New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1889, p. 15.

Kelly, Franklin, "Mount's Patrons," William Sidney Mount: Painter of American Life, New York: The American Federation of Arts, pp. 115, 126.

Koke, Richard J., American Landscape and Genre Paintings in the New-York Historical Society, Vol. I, New York: The New-York Historical Society, 1982, pp. 189-90.

Mann, Maybelle, The American Art-Union, Jupiter FL: ALM Associates, c. 1977, pp. 25, 82-3.

Morris, G. P., ed., "The Fine Arts," The New-York Mirror, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, Vol. XI, May 17, 1834, p. 3, No. 67.

"Miscellaneous Notices of Literature, Fine Arts, Sciences, The Drama &c., National Academy of Design," The American Monthly Magazine, Vol. III, June 1, 1834, pp. 281-3.

"National Academy of Design," The New York Evening Post, June 5, 1834, p. 2.

Powell, Earl A., Thomas Cole. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990, p. 54.

Seaver, Esther, ed., Thomas Cole, 1801-1848, One Hundred Years Later, Hartford, Ct.: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1949, p. 23, No. 18.

Tammenga, Michael J., The Beautiful, the Sublime, and The Picturesque: British Influences on American Landscape Painting, St. Louis Missouri: Washington University, 1984, pp. 29-30, 57.

Vedder, Lee A., "Nineteenth-century American Paintings," The Magazine Antiques, January 2005, p. 146.

Exhibitions:

National Academy of Design, 1834, Cat. No. 80.

Stuyvesant Institute, New York, NY, 1838, Cat. No. 2.

The Gallery of the American Art-Union, 1848, New York, NY, Cat. No. 56.

The Washington Exhibition in aid of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, at the American Art-Union Gallery, 1853, Cat. No. 89.

Art Exhibition at the Metropolitan Fair, in Aid of the U. S. Sanitary Commission, New York, NY, 1864, Cat. No. 49.

"Thomas Cole One Hundred Years Later," Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, CT, November 23, 1948-Jananuary 2, 1949, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, Jananuary 8-January 30, 1949, Cat. No. 18.

"Thomas Cole," Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Albany Institute of History and Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1969, Cat. No. 21.

Metropolitan Museum of Art 3/70 - 9/70 [exhibition title not known]

Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis, Missouri, 1984, Cat. No. 9.

"The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Picturesque: British Influences on American Landscape Painting," Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, 1987, Cat. No. 10.

"Selections from the Collection of Luman Reed," New-York Historical Society, 1988-2002.

"Intimate Friends: Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand and William Cullen Bryant," New-York Historical Society, October 24, 2000-February 4, 2001.

"The Course of Empire: Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School Landscape Tradition," New York State Museum, Albany, NY, August 23-November 30, 2003.

Luman Reed Gallery: A History of Art Collecting in 19th Century New York," New-York Historical Society, March 16, 2004.

"Nature and the American Vision," New-York Historical Society, March 13, 2005-January 25, 2008.

"Nature and the American Vision," New-York Historical Society, April 4, 2008-January 25, 2009.

"Nature and the American Vision," New-York Historical Society, April 17, 2009-July 12, 2009.

"America's Rome: Artists in the Eternal City, 1800-1900," Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, May 23, 2009–December 31, 2009.

"Picturesque and Sublime: Thomas Cole’s Trans-Atlantic Inheritance," Thomas Cole National Historic Site, Catskill, NY, May 1–November 4, 2018.