Dreaming big: Thomas Cole’s The Architect’s Dream

Thomas Cole paints 4,500 years of architectural history

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

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Key Points

  • Commissioned by the architect Ithiel Town to paint a landscape of ancient Athens, Thomas Cole created a fantastical array of ancient architecture. This painting reflects ideal and oversized representations of ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Gothic styles architecture — creating a nostalgia for the glories and character of these lost eras.
  • In the nineteenth century, many architects modeled their work on these historical forms creating a series of 19th century revival movements. In particular, American architects drew heavily on ancient Greek and Roman architecture in the design of official and civic buildings, associating their designs with ideals of democracy, strength, and stability.

Go deeper

This painting at the Toledo Museum of Art

Learn more about the architectural styles included in Cole’s painting (Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Gothic)

Read more about Ithiel Town and see some of the buildings that he designed

Why do so many official buildings look like ancient Greek temples?

Explore the classically-inspired architecture of Washington, DC

Learn more about Thomas Cole on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

 

More to think about

Rather than a recognizable landscape, Thomas Cole created an allegorical vision of the architect’s dream. How can the design of a building suggest a sense of its larger purpose or social function? Think of a building in your neighborhood—how does its design create (or clash) with the community?

 

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

More Smarthistory images…

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.