Juniata Museum Curator Authenticates Thomas Cole Painting in Permanent Collection
(Posted October 29, 2001)
HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Avid watchers of the "Antique Roadshow" know that it's possible to find a masterpiece painting moldering away in the attic, but it rarely happens to museums. But, thanks to astute research by the curator at the Juniata College Museum of Art, the museum has authenticated a misattributed painting in its permanent collection as being a work by Thomas Cole, one of the seminal figures in the Hudson River School of American landscape painters.
The painting, which had been attributed to the American artist Seth Eastman, is a 10-inch by 14-inch painted study for a larger Cole work called "The Ruins of Kenilworth Castle." It was part of a gift to the Juniata College Museum of Art by Lisa Savino Emerson, a 1950 graduate of the college. The gift comprised part of the college's Worth B. Stottlemyer Collection of more than 400 works of American and European art.
"I knew the painting was not in Eastman's style, which is primarily western landscapes," explains Nancy Siegel, curator of the Juniata museum. "The style of painting and subject matter was much more typical of Thomas Cole."
Siegel, who is researching and writing a book on the prose and poetry written by Thomas Cole, says that the painting is what art historians call a painted study. "Artists would paint small self-contained scenes which could be used as references to paint a larger work for a client," she says. "This painting shows a small figure looking over a stone wall and the crumbled ruins of an English castle."
Thomas Cole (1801-1848), known as the "father of the Hudson River School," was one of the first American landscape painters whose work became widely known and celebrated. He is best known for two series of allegorical paintings, "The Voyage of Life" and "The Course of Empire," in which similar scenes change over time. He painted numerous landscapes of scenery in the Catskill Mountains, the White Mountains and the Adirondack Mountains. Two of Cole's associates, Asher B. Durand, and Frederic Church, a pupil of Cole's, became celebrated Hudson River School painters in their own right.
When the museum received the gift from Mrs. Emerson in 2000, Siegel recognized that the painting had distinct indicators of Cole's artistic style. "A lot of painting identification is looking at an artist's work, and looking over and over again until you instinctively recognize an artist's style," she says.
Siegel, who had been researching Cole's writing at the New York State Library in Albany, delved into the artist's correspondence to see if she could find reference to "The Ruins of Kenilworth Castle."
She discovered that Cole had mentioned a commissioned painting of the castle for a client named Faile in an 1841 letter and wrote that he had made numerous painted sketches of the castle (located near Coventry, England). The larger painting of Kenilworth Castle painted for Mr. Faile has been lost (or at least its owner is unknown).
In addition, the back of the painting had a label from a London-based manufacturer of art supplies. Siegel was able to date the label to the 1840s. She also found a photograph of the larger "Ruins of Kenilworth Castle" from an exhibition in 1872. The photo clearly shows that the museum's painted study was used to complete the larger painting.
An examination of the painting revealed flecks of foreign material in the paint, which would indicate the study was painted outdoors. "Painting smaller sketches outdoors is very typical of Cole and of painters of the period," she says.
The painting will be exhibited in January as part of an exhibition of the museum's permanent collection. In April 2003, the painting will be displayed in the museum's exhibition "Along the Juniata: Thomas Cole and the Dissemination of American Landscape Imagery." Siegel currently is writing an article on her findings.
The museum already has a large complement of paintings and drawings from artists associated with the Hudson River School, including a Cole drawing and works by Albert Bierstadt, Asher B. Durand, Jervis McEntee and William Casilear.
"To find that we have a work by the earliest and most formidable figure of the Hudson River School is a wonderful surprise," Siegel says.
Contact April Feagley at email@example.com or (814) 641-3131 for more information.