Italian Scene Composition
Oil on canvas
Overall: 37 1/2 x 54 1/2 in. ( 95.2 x 138.4 cm ) Framed: 51 1/8 in. × 68 in. × 5 1/2 in. (129.9 × 172.7 × 14 cm)
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.
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."
Clark, Lewis Gaylord, ed. The Knickerbocker, Vol. III, No. 5, May, 1834, pp. 399-400. 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. The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851, ed. with an introduction by Bayard Tuckerman, New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1889, p. 15. Seaver, Esther, ed., Thomas Cole, 1801-1848, One Hundred Years Later, Hartford, Ct.: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1949, p. 23, No. 18. 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. Mann, Maybelle, The American Art-Union, Jupiter FL: ALM Associates, c. 1977, pp. 25, 82-3. 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. 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. 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. Powell, Earl A., Thomas Cole. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990, p. 54. 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. Kelly, Franklin, "Mount's Patrons," William Sidney Mount: Painter of American Life, New York: The American Federation of Arts, pp. 115, 126. Vedder, Lee A., "Nineteenth-century American Paintings," The Magazine Antiques, January 2005, p. 146.
Gift of The New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts
Luman Reed, d. 1836; Mrs. Luman Reed, New York, 1836-44; New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1844-58.
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.