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Saturday Volcano Art: Thomas Cole, ‘Mount Etna from Taormina, Sicily’ (1843) 21 March 2009

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Thomas Cole, 'Mount Etna from Taormina, Sicily' (1843)

‘What a magnificent site! Etna with its eternal snows towering in the heavens — the ranges of nearer mountains — the deep romantic valley … I have never seen anything like it’. So wrote the American artist Thomas Cole (1801-48) of Taormina in Sicily, which he visited in April 1842. While staying at Taormina he climbed Mount Etna, and made many sketches of the landscape and the Greek and Roman remains that were to be found there. When he returned to the United States he produced several large paintings based on his time in Sicily, of which ‘Mount Etna from Taormina’ is one of the most notable.

Cole is perhaps chiefly known and celebrated today as an artist of the American landscape, and particularly of the Hudson River Valley and the Catskill Mountains. He sought in his art to represent the American landscape as an unspoilt Eden, steeped in natural rather than cultural antiquity, yet the spirit of the Italian landscape, shaped by the hand of man and haunted by history, is always present in his work. He was an artist with a deep sense of the past and a moralizing vision: he was profoundly attracted by the tranquility and harmony of the Italian landscapes he saw and painted during his two visits to Italy in 1830-32 and 1841-2, and which he continued to recreate throughout his career, but just as his American landscape views are haunted by the cycle of natural destruction and renewal, so his Italian views are deeply imbued with the presence of antiquity and the lessons of human pride and folly.

Cole’s view of Etna is structured into three zones, following established classical landscape tradition: foreground, middle ground and distance. The foreground represents the past, in the form of the ancient Teatro Greco, the Greek theatre (although most of the presently visible structure is Roman), one of the celebrated sights of Taormina. Beyond the ruined arches and broken columns of the theatre lies the present, in the form of the cultivated valley in which man and nature exist in pastoral harmony. Still further beyond, and dominating the canvas, is Mount Etna, representing the eternal. Cole thus imbues his landscape with a narrative meaning, reflecting on the long history of human civilization and yet its relative insigificance and fragility compared with the eternal forces of divinely-ordered nature.

Two versions of ‘Mount Etna from Taormina, Sicily’ exist: one (1843) in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, and the other (1844) at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, New London.

References

Brigitte Bailey, ‘The panoptic sublime and the formation of the American citizen in Cooper’s Wing-and-Wing and Vole’s Mount Etna from Taormina, Sicily‘ (1997) [online here]

Cedar Grove: The Thomas Cole National Historic Site

Louis L. Noble, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole, N.A. (New York, 1853)

Barbara Novak, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience (1980; 3rd edn., New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Thomas Cole Online (Artcyclopedia)

Wilderness Art of the 1800s (Idaho State University)

The Volcanism Blog

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Comments

1. Ron Schott - 22 March 2009

The Hudson River School of painters are some of my favorites. Many thanks for featuring this one, Ralph.

2. Silver Fox - 22 March 2009

You always find such nice volcano art!

3. volcanism - 22 March 2009

Thank you! Suggestions of works of art for this series are always welcome.

4. Rob - 22 March 2009

Great artist, nice painting. Yesterday I visited an exhibit at Penn State, Palmer Museum of Art, on Peter Henry Emerson and American Naturalistic Photography. That school of thought at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries focused on the small beauties of one’s immediate environment, in contrast to the sublime impression of Etna given here by Cole. Check out the Pompeii exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

5. Ediacara - 22 March 2009

There was a Hungarian painter Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka, who had also painted the same scene in a bit more modern style:

I adore these volcano art post of you!


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