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Thomas Cole’s ‘Dream of Arcadia’ enchants at the Clark

Commissions rolled in and Thomas Cole was able to afford a summer studio in Catskill on the west bank of the Hudson (his home, a National Historic Site, is an hour’s drive due west of Great Barrington on Route 23).

You will be arrested, if you enter the American Galleries at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, by an unfamiliar painting displayed prominently on the right wall in the place where Winslow Homer’s “The Undertow” usually hangs. “The Clark is delighted to welcome this remarkable painting from the Denver Art Museum,” reads the fine print in the accompanying chat label. The imposing artwork before you is “Dream of Arcadia” (c. 1838) by Thomas Cole, a luminous landscape filled with “juicy verdure” and an “exuberance of pearly light,” in the words of an early commentator. “I took a trip to Arcadia in a Dream,” wrote Cole to a friend. “The atmosphere was clear and the traveling delightful.” It’s worth taking a trip to the Clark just to see, and travel inside of, Cole’s canvas. Bring your reading glasses: At some point you will want to get close to the painting.

English by birth, Thomas Cole immigrated with his family to America in 1818 when he was 17 years old, crossing the Alleghenies and reaching Steubenville on the west bank of the Ohio. Cole had gotten his start in art in England as an engraver of designs for calico, and in America, he cut wood blocks for his father’s wallpaper factory. When an itinerant portraitist passed through town and showed him an English book on painting illustrated with woodcuts after Titian, Claude, Rosa and other European masters, Cole decided to become a painter himself. He moved to Philadelphia, where he lived in a garret and made drawings of casts at the Academy, picking up work where he could; he was once reduced to painting the portrait of a corpse.

A move to New York in 1825 and a boat trip up the Hudson River changed his life. Moved by the wild grandeur of the American landscapes he had seen, and especially by those of the mid-Hudson region, he executed a series of landscape paintings that were immediately noticed, and purchased by, the leading artists of the day. “His fame spread like fire,” wrote Asher Brown Durand, who was one of the purchasers. Commissions rolled in and Cole was able to afford a summer studio in Catskill on the west bank of the Hudson (his home, a National Historic Site, is an hour’s drive due west of Great Barrington on Route 23).

Cole had recently completed a five-painting commission, “The Course of Empire,” that ended on a distinctly dystopian note (“Desolation”), but not before passing through “The Arcadian or Pastoral State” in phase 2. In 1836 Cole married and moved year-round to Catskill. His happiness, idealism and supreme talent for landscape painting came together in a return to the Arcadian theme in the painting now on view at the Clark.

What he painted is a fantastical landscape with American and Italian elements (Cole had been to Italy) representing an imaginary archaic Greek world. Arcadia was — and is — a region of Greece in the northeastern Peloponnese that even in antiquity became symbolic of an idealized pastoral existence (remember “the dales of Arcady” from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”?). Americans of the founding generation and their successors in the first half of the 19th century were fond of projecting features of ancient Greece onto the emerging nation, especially following the successful Greek revolution against the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s. Cole projected a dream of ancient Arcadia onto the expansive American landscape.

And it is expansive. It’s a long way from the green and aquatic foreground to the most distant mountains. In the scene on the right, dominated by a waterfall gushing through a chasm like Alph (the sacred river) in “Kubla Khan,” I counted 12 steps where the eye could rest as it rises from one level to the next till lost in distant mountains. This painting cries out for the Ken Burns effect (you may approach and peer, by the way — just keep your fingers at a safe distance). As your eye travels down the green alley at the left, and up to the sunlit peaks, and above all through the keyhole opening in the trees past a village down the valley to more distant mountains, the painting becomes as three-dimensional as a hologram, though the illusion is produced simply by skillful use of the art of perspective.

A magnificent (yet miniature) classical temple sits on the brow of a hill. Delicately rendered coconut palms lend an exotic touch. Look closely and you’ll see that in front of the temple, a sacrificial offering is sending up flames and a plume of smoke. In fact, a crowd has gathered, rendered in astonishing detail with what must have been a very fine brush. An early critic spoke of the moral radiance of the scene; the Clark sees an expression of peace and harmony. Tiny sheep graze on the greensward. Cattle drink from the river. A rural festivity with a piping swain and a dancing maiden overseen by a garlanded herm of Pan is a painting-within-the-painting at the lower left. There is no hint (as there was in the pastoral stage of “The Course of Empire”) that trouble may be brewing, no trace of the Panic of 1837: Instead we have a rural utopia without end, created by a visionary immigrant artist who found a home for his dreams on the Hudson.

“Dream of Arcadia” will be on view at the Clark Art Institute’s American Galleries all year long, and then it will go back to Denver. Don’t miss it!

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