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Tag Archives: Detroit Institute of Art

Though he was born and educated in England, Thomas Cole,  his work was quintessentially American. Not only did his realist landscapes determine, in large measure, the trajectory of American painting in the 19th Century, they helped shape how a young nation came to view the Western Frontier.

A Rocky Glen (Thomas Cole - 1846)

In the days before we were bombarded with imagery, a century before Television, when even newspapers contained nary a photograph, Americans got their “news” through the work of painters, illustrators, and engravers. Cole and his artistic progeny, first the Hudson River School and later the artists who swarmed over the American West, were the eyes through which we saw our wilderness landscape. Those eyes showed us beauty without limits, but what we saw was, in the final analysis, a storehouse of wealth to exploit without restraint. That probably wasn’t Cole’s intent, but its is his legacy.

Cole never really traveled beyond the tamed, civilized wilderness of the Eastern United States. He left it to his successors, like Moran and Bierstadt, to explore the trackless expanses beyond the Mississippi River. When those other artists traveled West, Cole’s spirit went with them. American landscapes of the period leaned toward large, if not in size than at least in scope. People, if they were in the frame at all, were generally tiny in order to emphasize the scale of the chosen vista. Collectively these artists created an American ideal that exists in our consciousness to this day. Their contribution to our identity is incalculable.

Niagara Falls (Thomas Cole-1830)

I had the exquisite experience last year of standing in a large gallery stuffed with 19th Century American landscapes at the Detroit Institute of Art late last year (DIA has over 2000 works by Cole in it’s collection, mostly drawings). It was moving in a way that was pretty difficult to describe, but whatever it was that I was feeling was enhanced by understanding of just how significant this room full of paintings had been in the development of MY country, My America.

American Lake Scene (Thomas Cole-1844)

It’s surprising in a way the very best piece I’ve ever seen about the work and importance of the American Realists of the 19th Century comes from an Australian, Robert Hughes, in his book American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, a book I highly recommend even to people with only a passing interest in art. As a critic, Hughes is both highly capable and highly opinionated. I think the fact that a number of living American artists detest him is a compelling recommendation of his work. Anyway, he had this to say about the work of Cole and his successors

“It was pure, and pointed to it’s Creator. The wilderness, for nineteenth-century American artists, is mostly stress-free. Its God is an American God whose Gospel is Manifest Destiny. It is pious and full of uplift. No wonder it was so quickly absorbed as metaphor of religious experience by the first mass audience American art was to reach. It dovetailed so well for the piety of its time.” (American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America: Robert Hughes (1997), 140-41)

I am 54 years old today.

I spent the weekend celebrating this minor milestone. The celebration had it’s highs and lows as I reflected on the good times and spectacular meltdowns that have marked the trail I see when I look over my shoulder. I guess I should be thankful for everything, including all that self-inflicted pain, because all those things have conspired to make me what I am today.

One of the many activities on my busy social schedule was a trip to the Detroit Institute of Art. It may surprise a lot of people to learn that Detroit, that monument to the decline of the American Empire, is also the home of an absolutely world-class art museum. The irony of that cultural jewel in the middle of an economic war zone wasn’t lost on me, particularly as I watched a homeless man searching through a trash can beneath a sign advertising the Rembrandt Exhibition (admission fee: $16), but that’s a subject for another day.

I had a mission in mind. In addition to viewing the exhibition of photographs of a dying Detroit that is on view until April, there was a particular painting that I wanted to see, that being John Sloan’s McSorley’s Bar.

McSorley's Bar (John French Sloan - 1912)

Sloan is a bit of a hero to me, a member of a group of American painters known as the Ashcan School who, at the beginning of the Great American Century, decided to paint the real lives of real people in the bustling streets of New York. They were, I’m given to understand, rebelling against the academy, as many good artists are prone to do from time to time. This particular group of rebels gave voice and dignity to people who were previously of no real interest to American art; immigrants, laborers, bums, drunks, the vast ocean of urban inhabitants who fueled our ascendency to global greatness yet did not benefit much from it. In short, they painted my people. Had they worked in Detroit or Pittsburgh, they may have encountered my grandfather in one of those dingy bars and immortalized him on canvas.

I found this painting after spending some considerable time with 18th century French aristocrats, Dutch peasants, the English Gentry, several hundred years of gruesome Catholic religious iconography (including the particularly bloody style of crucifix that I grew up fearing at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Saginaw), some really bad portraiture from post-Revolution America, a huge room full of absolutely stunning American landscapes from Thomas Cole and others, and then, finally, two rooms full of offerings from the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Degas, and even a Monet thrown in for good measure. DIA has a wonderfully rich collection that I only sampled in the three hours I spent there.

McSorley’s Bar was the grail I sought, although¬† I still don’t know why I so needed to see it and understand even less why it had such a powerful emotional effect on me when I found it. I guess it represents the very best of what I know of American art, the pride we have as Americans tempered with the responsibility we feel for our brothers and sisters. I wish we felt that kind of responsibility these days instead of the fear and contempt that I see.

I felt so good after visiting McSorley’s Bar that I was able to look at a couple of Warhols without openly mocking them. Well, without mocking them very much anyway.

Though I am a photographer rather than a painter, I can trace some of my own artistic heritage back to Sloan and his friends, through Edward Hopper, the very best of the American Realist painters. On this day, on top of all else, I will be thankful for those footsteps to walk in.