Thomas Cole, The Architect’s Dream

Thomas Cole, The Architect’s Dream, 1840, oil on canvas, 134.7 x 213.6 cm (Toledo Museum of Art)

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re at the Toledo Museum of Art, standing in front of a large painting by Thomas Cole. This is “The Architect’s Dream”. It was painted in 1840. America had never seen anything like it.

[0:18] We see the capital of a great classical column. And impossibly, on top of that, laid out as if he were a classical figure, this young man, clearly an architect, holding a drawing in his hand, lying on books. Lying on knowledge itself.

Dr. Lawrence W. Nichols: [0:34] He’s holding a floor plan of a Roman or Greek temple. With his eyes shut, he’s imagining the past, and therefore, thinking about what he as an architect can do in the future. Just below, one reads, “Painted by T. Cole for I. Town, Arch.” — abbreviation for architect — “1840”.

Dr. Zucker: [0:54] Ithiel Town asked Cole to paint for him a landscape of ancient Athens, but Cole clearly deviated.

Dr. Nichols: [1:02] Ithiel Town therefore rejected this painting. He wanted a landscape with Athens in it. Instead, Cole paints this menagerie of architectural styles over millennia. Town is quoted as saying, “He liked the mixture of different ages and styles in the same imaginary picture.”

[1:24] Nonetheless, he rejected the painting. He didn’t fully pay for it. It ended up back with Cole. It stayed in the Cole family until the Toledo Museum of Art acquired it. Town wanted an identifiable landscape.

Dr. Zucker: [1:37] What Cole does give us is a fantastical history of the great architecture of the Western tradition.

Dr. Nichols: [1:43] Egyptian pyramid with Egyptian temple in the background, obelisks in front of it. And then in the middle ground, a Doric Greek temple with a pilastered wall leading to an lonic Greek temple, above which rests the Roman Tempietto, the round temple we see with Corinthian columns and the Roman aqueduct behind it. Of course, there’s even more.

Dr. Zucker: [2:06] All rendered on a gargantuan scale. You can see these tiny human figures. This is a scale that even the brilliance of Roman engineers would never achieve. To understand this painting, it’s important to understand how these architectural styles were understood in the 19th century.

[2:24] The Egyptian, the Greek, the Roman styles were considered to be ideal, perfect architecture that we in the modern world could only hope to re-achieve. It’s interesting to me that Cole has separated that great tradition from the Gothic by the body of water.

[2:41] This is the side of the painting that we’re on. This is closer to our historical moment. Yet, it’s in shadow. It’s not the height of man’s achievement as the classical had been seen. Despite that, there is some light that comes through, and it comes through those stained-glass windows. That is the spirituality of the Gothic.

Dr. Nichols: [3:00] Cole is including that because Town worked in that style as well. It’s important also to have an awareness that the fantasy we’re looking at is even accentuated by these framing arches with curtains pulled back. This is a stage set.

Dr. Zucker: [3:16] Even as that figure may represent Ithiel Town’s fantasy, of course, ultimately it’s the artist’s. Although America had never seen a painting like this, this painting is not coming out of thin air. There was a tradition in Europe of architectural fantasy.

Dr. Nichols: [3:32] Cole, who was born in England, traveled back to Europe on two occasions. On these trips, he saw great works of art by Claude Lorrain, the 17th century French artist. He saw paintings of the contemporary artist, Turner. He was influenced by what they had done in a fantasy modality, allegorical landscapes commenting on human history and human civilization.

[3:58] This is an artist who then would paint such series as “The Course of Empire.” Here in our painting in the Toledo Museum of Art, he’s encapsulated in one large canvas an exploration of the past, and Ithiel Town, even though he didn’t like the painting, we have it today as this architect and as Cole are musing about the future.

[4:18] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Lawrence W. Nichols, Toledo Museum of Art and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Thomas Cole, The Architect’s Dream," in Smarthistory, April 7, 2019, accessed July 18, 2024,