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Thomas Cole's "The Old Mill at Sunset" at Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art


A decades-old quest by curators at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo., for a worthy work by "the father of American landscape painting" has ended with the purchase of Thomas Cole's The Old Mill at Sunset, which will be on view beginning March 4, 2005.

The Museum bought the exceptional mid-19th-century landscape by Hudson River School painter Cole (1801-1848) from the Alexander Gallery, New York. Nelson-Atkins Director and CEO Marc Wilson finalized its purchase for an undisclosed sum drawn primarily from The Ever Glades Fund, established in 2002 by Sarah and Landon Rowland for the acquisition of American art. "Given the difficulty today of obtaining significant works by Cole," Wilson said, "this painting is particularly desirable because it is a quintessential summation of his landscape manner in rare, perfect condition."

The addition of Cole's oil-on-canvas raises the quality of the Nelson-Atkins' collection of mid-19th-century landscape holdings tremendously, said Margaret Conrads, Samuel Sosland Curator, American Art. "This acquisition sets the stage for understanding all landscape painting in the American collection painted after 1844," Conrads said, referring to the canvas's date -- the year before the term "Manifest Destiny" was coined. "You could argue that every American landscape image painted during and after Cole's lifetime is informed by his work."

The panoramic oval-format landscape depicts a mill beside a calm river, with a small herd of cattle on the bank opposite. A young boy and girl sit in the foreground. In the background, sailboats float at the foot of a dramatic mountain range beneath a luminous sky.

"The world depicted in 'The Old Mill at Sunset' is Cole's ideal for America," said Conrads, "where settled community and pristine wilderness coexist harmoniously under the careful watch and guidance of Divine Providence."

The working mill, bucolic landscape and children all are symbolic markers that reflect Cole's high hopes for an America that could compete favorably with Europe -- a sentiment shared by many at the time who supported U.S. expansionist policies. (right: Thomas Cole, American, born England (1801-1848). The Old Mill at Sunset, 1844. oil on canvas. Purchase: Nelson Trust through The Ever Glades Fund and exchange of a gift from the Howard P. Treadway and Tertia F. Treadway Collection, 2004.29.)


Cole's brief-yet-influential career

As a young boy, Cole came to Ohio from his native England. He worked his way to New York City in 1825 to pursue a career as painter. Cole announced his arrival on the art scene with a group of Catskill Mountain scenes that immediately were acquired by the most influential figures in the New York art world of the day.

In 1826 Cole became one of the founding members of the National Academy of Design, an association of artists intendedto "promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition." Indeed, "The Old Mill at Sunset" was displayed in the Academy's 1845 annual show.

As a professional artist, Cole divided his time among New York City; Catskill, N.Y., at the foot of the Catskill Mountains in the Hudson Valley; and Europe. Toward the end of a grand tour of Europe, he spent a few months of early 1832 in a Roman house where the painter Claude Gellée, called Le Lorrain, (1600-1682) once lived, and the perfectly balanced composition of Cole's "The Old Mill at Sunset"recalls the Claudean landscape tradition.

After Cole returned to America, he completed several series of paintings with allegorical themes. Two famous epics, the ambitious five-painting "Course of Empire" (1836) and the popular four-painting "The Voyage of Life" (1839), chart the artist's view of the cycle of a nation and an individual, respectively. "The Old Mill at Sunset"is distinguished among the last group of Cole's paintings, completed in the five years before his death, when he had returned to his beloved Catskill Mountains after his final European sojourn from 1841 to 1842. 


Museum masterstroke

The acquisition of the rare Cole concludes a long and difficult pursuit by the Museum. "The Nelson-Atkins has been searching for a Cole for decades," Conrads said. "During my 14 years here, we have looked at several -- none of which has been as stunning an image, so significant in his career, and in such amazing condition."

Franklin Kelly, Senior Curator of American and British Paintings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, is an expert on 19th- and early 20th-century American painting. "Over the years," he said, "the Nelson-Atkins' collection of American paintings has grown in scope and quality, but has lacked a work by Cole. 'The Old Mill at Sunset' addresses that lacuna perfectly, and I congratulate the museum on its acquisition." 


Limited availability

Cole's untimely death at 47 in 1848 was considered a national calamity, and the brevity of his career limited the body of work. To this day, his work is highly prized among collectors.

"American mid-19th-century paintings of the caliber of 'The Old Mill at Sunset' are incredibly rare -- not just by Cole, but by his equally famous peers including Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt and John Frederick Kensett," Conrads said. "Most of the major pictures by these artists already are in public collections. They come on the market only infrequently."

The addition of "The Old Mill at Sunset" vies in importance and beauty with iconic paintings at the Nelson-Atkins including Raphaelle Peale's "Venus Rising from the Sea -- A Deception" ("After the Bath") and Church's "Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives." 


Admired then and now

"The Old Mill at Sunset"was revered in the 19th century, as it is today. In 1853, Cole biographer Louis L. Noble hailed "The Old Mill at Sunset" as "one of those rare creations of the pencil that touch the thoughtful beholder like a rich and tender melody. If the expression may be allowed, it is a pictured song." Today, the canvas continues to earn praise for its visual poetry.

"'The Old Mill at Sunset' is one of Thomas Cole's most lyrically beautiful landscapes and a highly important example of his late style," said the National Gallery's Kelly.


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