Study for Dream of Arcadia

Object Number: 
Oil on wood panel
Overall (canvas): 8 3/4 x 14 1/2 in. (22.2 x 36.8 cm) Framed: 15 1/2 in. × 21 in. × 3 in. (39.4 × 53.3 × 7.6 cm)
Gallery Label: 
Cole was acquainted with the artist Asher B. Durand from the beginning of his career, and in the later 1830s the two developed a close friendship that would continue through the rest of Cole's life. In 1837 Durand presented a portrait of Cole to his new wife Maria (Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Massachusetts). On December 11, 1837 Cole wrote to Durand of Mrs. Cole's delight that she "does not know how ever she shall get out of your debt." Perhaps in a gesture of gratitude, Cole gave Durand this small sketch of his larger painting of the same title (Denver Art Museum). It is a charming reminder of their correspondence about the painting itself and their shared travails as landscapists. On March 20, 1838 Cole wrote fancifully to Durand that "I took a trip to Arcadia in a dream," and he described his physical progress through the landscape of his picture as a metaphor for his work on the painting, scraping his shins scrambling up a high mountain, and butting his nose against a marble temple. He noted that he found the inhabitants of that country "very troublesome" and that "they have almost murdered me." Durand, feeling harried by his own work, responded on March 30 that regarding Cole's "Arcadian mishaps, I find much to excite my sympathy, for no 'pauvre diable' ever trudged harder thro' 'Fogs Lakes and Fens, rocks, caves and glens' than I have for many weeks past." Cole exhibited the large painting Dream of Arcadia at the National Academy of Design in early May, 1838. Durand had not acknowledged receiving the study in his letter of March 30, so it is likely that the N-YHS work was executed after the larger painting was essentially planned, rather than as a preparatory work. The sketch reprises the basic landscape elements, but the figures are fewer and smaller in scale. This is not surprising, given the difficulty Cole professed in realizing the figures, whom he joked had "almost murdered him." He changed the statue at lower left as well: in the large finished work it is a garlanded bust with a severe expression surrounded by figures dancing and playing music, but in the small sketch the bust has become a full figure on a much taller pedestal, perhaps functioning as a protector, rather than a stern deity to be appeased. This study ostensibly takes the form of trompe l'oeil; the sketch appears to be pinned to a board at each corner and the edges of the canvas are curled. However, Cole contradicted the aim of trompe l'oeil, which is to fool the eye with a high degree of finish and exacting detail; his sketchy handling of the "wood" background and the edges of the faux canvas suggests a witty satire of the idea that painting can or should present an exact replica of nature. Durand would have agreed about the impossibility of truly imitating the wonders of nature. In his March 30 letter to Cole he rhapsodized on the coming of spring and "the unapproachable charms of this beautiful Creation. I mean unapproachable by our feeble efforts of imitation."
"An Aged Artist," The Studio, August 1883. pp. 60-3. "Pictures by Durand," The New York Times, April 26, 1903, p. 34. Seaver, Esther, ed., Thomas Cole, 1801-1848, One Hundred Years Later, Hartford, Ct.: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1949, pp. 27, 42, No. 29. 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. 205-6. Columbus Museum of Art, 1985, More Than Meets The Eye: The Art of Trompe l'Oeil, pp. 26, 30, 33, 50-51. Novak, Barbara, Dreams and Shadows Thomas H. Hotchkiss in Nineteenth-Century Italy, New York: The New-York Historical Society, 1993, p. 135. Ledes, Allison Eckhardt, "A Bicentennial in New York City," The Magazine Antiques, January 2005, p. 152. Leggio, Gail, "In Nature's Presence: Asher B. Durand and American Landscape," American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2007, pp. 10-1, 14-8. Ferber, Linda S., ed., Kindred Spirits Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape, Brooklyn Museum, 2007, pp. 132-3, 135. Vedder, Lee A. "Nineteenth-century American paintings." The Magazine Antiques 167 (2005): 146-155.
Credit Line: 
Gift of the children of the artist, through John Durand
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group