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Thomas Cole at Mount Holyoke

The Hudson River School painter inspires a play and an exhibit.

The centerpiece of the current art exhibit at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, is the most famous and influential of all American landscape paintings. "View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm" (more commonly known as "The Oxbow") was painted by Thomas Cole in 1836. On loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, it anchors the exhibit "Changing Prospects," an array of artworks and artifacts celebrating the mountain as an inspiration for both art and tourism.

In connection with the exhibition, the Mount Holyoke College Theatre Department is producing the biographical play "Thomas Cole: A Waking Dream." In "The Oxbow," Thomas Cole juxtaposes wilderness with civilization, sunshine with storm clouds, a rugged mountainside overlooking a tranquil valley. In his play about Thomas Cole, Donald Sanders juxtaposes fact and fancy, realism and surrealism, humans and angels.

"Thomas Cole" is a whimsical biography of the founder and leading figure in the Hudson River School of landscape painting. English-born, Ohio-bred, with little formal training but a prodigious talent and an expansive imagination, Cole revitalized the landscape genre by combining the eye of a realist with the heart of a romantic. At the age of 24, Cole was famous and sought-after, the first American celebrity artist.

The play's structure mirrors the intentional anachronisms and the mix of realistic and allegorical elements in Cole's work. These dissonances also reverberate in the play's incidental music by ultra-modern composer Henry Threadgill.

What begins as a gallery talk on the painter expands to include other voices and visions. Themes in Cole's life and art are represented on stage by symbolic figures, including a Spirit of Autumn, gowned in leaves, and four angels, complete with feathery wings. In all, the student and community cast of 15 portray 38 historical and fanciful figures.

Vanessa James's production design extends the play's metaphors even further. The proscenium is a gilded, jewel-encrusted picture frame. At the back of the stage hangs a smaller version, which frames projected reproductions of Cole's paintings.

One of these, of course, is Cole's view of the Oxbow in the Connecticut River from atop Mount Holyoke. This impressive canvas, over six feet across, is the starting place and constant point of reference in the exhibit "Changing Prospects." The show provides a historical panorama of the fascination the mountain and its views have held for artists, writers and nature lovers for two hundred years.

The 100-plus paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, and Victorian memorabilia trace the mountain's role as a 19th-century cultural icon (the awe-inspiring views from the summit of Mount Holyoke made it the second most popular tourist destination in America, after Niagara Falls) and its resurgent popularity as an artistic subject in the late 20th century. Many of the artworks on display-some of them on the same grand scale as the 1836 "Oxbow"-reflect, imitate, or otherwise "converse" with Cole's masterpiece. Some of these show the same view, gazing westward toward the Berkshires, often at sunset. Others look up the Connecticut River Valley to the north, and several of the more idealized versions of this view also feature literally fantastic sunsets-on the northern horizon.

While Cole's view of nature as wild and unruly, in contrast with the neat, staid 18th-century style, founded a distinctly American school of painting and made him famous and (briefly) wealthy, that kind of thing wasn't where his real passion lay. What Cole really wanted to paint was not big impressive landscapes but big meaningful allegories of human history and experience.

This conflict between his artistic and even spiritual yearnings and his public's more conventional demands constantly tormented him. Both the play and the exhibit illustrate this poignant tension between wildness and order, art and reality, inspiration and commerce.

The art exhibit "Changing Prospects" can be seen at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum through December 8, 2002. "Thomas Cole: A Waking Dream" is performed in the Rooke Laboratory Theatre at Mount Holyoke College October 23-27. [Editor's Note: Mount Holyoke rises directly behind my house in Hadley, MA. The exhibit includes some artifacts from the Save the Mountain campaign of 1999-2000 , which successfully beat back a proposal to heavily develop the land immediately abutting the mountain. You can read more about that effort at http://www.savemtholyokerange.com


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