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National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of Italian Coast Scene with Ruined Tower
Thomas Cole (painter)
American, 1801 - 1848
Italian Coast Scene with Ruined Tower, 1838
oil on canvas
overall: 86.4 x 116.8 cm (34 x 46 in.) framed: 118.1 x 148.6 x 11.4 cm (46 1/2 x 58 1/2 x 4 1/2 in.)
Gift of The Circle of the National Gallery of Art
1993.55.1
On View
Art for the Nation Exhibition Catalogue

Thomas Cole, generally considered America's first important landscape painter, first traveled to Europe in 1829. In London that year he saw and admired the English painter John Constable's great Hadleigh Castle: The Mouth of the Thames--Morning after a Stormy Night, (1829, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), which depicted a ruined medieval tower standing on a high hill. While in Italy in 1831-1832, Cole saw and sketched similar scenes and upon his return to America painted a number of fine pictures of circular towers set in lonely landscapes. Cole began this painting to fulfill a commission for a scene from Byron's narrative poem, "The Corsair." Encountering difficulties with that subject, he shifted to a different source, Coleridge's introduction to "The Ballad of the Dark Ladie," which includes lines describing a moonlit scene with a ruined medieval tower. However, as Cole struggled to bring the painting to completion, he was beset by doubts and his mood became troubled. As he recorded in his journal on May 19, 1838:

When I remember the great works produced by the masters, how paltry seem the productions of my own pencil; how unpromising the prospect of ever producing pictures that shall delight, and improve posterity, and be regarded with admiration and respect. 1

Feeling shackled by the demands of illustrating someone else's imagery, Cole abandoned his poetic sources and made the picture into something more purely his own. A few days later, on 22 May 1838, he wrote in his journal:

I am now engaged in painting a Picture representing a Ruined & Solitary Tower that stands on a craggy promontory whose base is laved by a calm unruffled ocean...I think it will be poetical, there is a stillness, a loneliness about it that may reach the Imagination. 2

Italian Coast Scene with Ruined Tower, probably the work Cole exhibited in Boston in 1839 as Italian Seashore, with Tower, was unknown to modern scholarship on Cole until its acquisition by the Gallery in 1993. As one of Cole's major statements on the theme of the mutability of man's creations and the transience of life, it may be seen as a pictorial version of ideas he also expressed in poetry:

Or is it that the fading light reminds
That we are mortal and the latter day
Steals onward swiftly, like unseen winds,
And all our years are clouds that pass quickly away. 3

(Text by Franklin Kelly, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2002)

Notes

1. Quoted in Louis Legrand Noble, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole, ed. Elliot S. Vesell (Cambridge, Mass., 1964), 195-196.

2. Noble 1964.

3. "Evening Thoughts," in Marshall B. Tymn, ed., Thomas Cole's Poetry (York, Pa., 1972), 78-79.

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