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Annotations: George Cooke & Thomas Hope and the Influence of Antiquity

February 5 - July 22, 2012 


The Annotations: George Cooke & Thomas Hope and the Influence of Antiquity exhibition will be on display through Sunday, July 22, 2012 in the Galleria Cases at the Columbus Museum. George Cooke (1793-1849), who began his career as a self-taught painter, sought to increase his skill and knowledge by following the custom of many American artists in traveling to Europe. Born in Maryland in 1793, Cooke exhibited a talent for art from the age of three. At sixteen, he learned that his lawyer father had insufficient funds to send him to study with noted artist Rembrandt Peale, who had just returned to Philadelphia from Europe. Cooke went into the china and grocery business, and then into land speculation in Missouri. When both efforts failed, he took up art again, teaching himself to paint portraits by "copying his Presidents." His success in achieving good likenesses led to many early portrait commissions. (right: George Cooke after Thomas Hope, Goddess Roma [from] the arch of [Co]nstantine, 1828, pen and ink on wove paper. Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia)

In the absence of a native school of art during the eighteenth century, American artists based their work on European models, and the scarcity of art academies in the United States sent artists to Europe to train their eyes and to learn the artist's craft. This practice was also followed throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Artists such as Benjamin West, Sanford Robinson Gifford and Hiram Powers made Europe their temporary or permanent home to study and emulate art of the classical world.  Not long before his departure for France in 1826, Cooke described himself in a letter to his brother as "a student in a profession, having yet to obtain my diploma and which can only be obtained in Europe." 

In the minds of many 18th- and 19th-century Americans, Greece and Rome rivaled each other as the summit of western cultural achievement. The United States was believed to be the heir to the democratic ideals of the Greeks, and the sober virtue of the Romans. As inheritors of the classical legacy, American artists like George Cooke and Sanford Robinson Gifford traveled to Europe to study the sculptures and buildings of antiquity. Sculptors such as Hiram Powers spent extended periods of time in Italy; there they would thoroughly examine the work of their Greek and Roman forerunners, obtain Italian Carrara and Seravezza marbles (as deposits of high-quality marble had not yet been discovered in North America), and they were able to collaborate with the skilled Italian workmen who carved the marbles for them. Beginning in the mid-19th century, art academies in America were commonly equipped with plaster casts of revered ancient statues. Thereafter, art students who could not travel to Europe could make drawings of casts of recognized ancient masterpieces. (left: Thomas Eakins, born Philadelphia, Pa. 1844, died Philadelphia, Pa. 1916, Head of a Warrior, ca. 1862-1866, pencil and charcoal on paper. Gift of Mrs. Richard Jennings by exchange  2008.57)

During the period in 1828, Cooke copied passages from the introduction and figures from the engravings of noted antiquarian Thomas Hope's Costume of the Ancients. His compendium was accepted as a reliable visual guide to ancient costume and antiquities, and artists turned to it not only as a source for elements of ancient costume and ancient figure style but also for elegant poses of noble figures. Cooke apparently wanted to master ancient costume because of his ambition, which was unfortunately never achieved, to become a successful history painter. However, he was successful as a portrait painter, and this exhibition explores how he might have used the costumes and poses from Hope's publication as inspiration for his portraits of Native Americans and of Henry Clay. The flow of inspiration from antiquity to the 19th century artwork of Hope and other American artists in the Museum's collection is investigated by placing them side by side in this installation.

Cooke did finally achieve a degree of success beyond his itinerant portrait painting at the end of his life. Daniel Pratt, the wealthy founder of the industrial town of Prattville, Alabama, became Cooke's patron, purchasing much of his work. He also set up a gallery of Cooke's work in Prattville. The list of paintings in this gallery includes landscapes and Classical and Biblical subjects, as well as portraits of American statesmen. As he was about to settle and retire in Athens, Georgia, Cooke died suddenly of cholera in New Orleans in 1849. His widow Maria remarried a lawyer in Athens, and helped facilitate the transfer of Cooke's huge Interior of St. Peter's, Rome from the Prattville gallery to the University of Georgia Chapel, where it can still be seen today.

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For biographical information on artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 4/15/14

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