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Portrait of the architect and his dreams

THOMAS COLE, the creator of this striking canvas, bore the reputation of being a highly imaginative artist, something this fantasy confirms. Artists are supposed to indulge in daydreams and reveries more than most people, but architects (though undoubtedly many are artists) are for some reason thought to be different in this respect from painters, sculptors, poets, and musicians. Their vision being of necessity constrained by the limitations of measurements, elevations, and materials, architects have to be practical, aware of expense and time -- they are not thought of as dreamers. This is, however, a misconception. Tens of thousands of architectural plans have been painstakingly drawn up but never executed. Either the prospective owners did not like them, could not afford them, or chose another man's designs, yet the architects press on regardless, hoping. The ideas have been preserved, even if only on paper, and their creators have cherished an expectation that one day, perhaps, the actual building would be constructed.

The picture we have here, however, is not of this category, in that it was painted without any thought of fulfillment. It was simply a fantasy.

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Innocent as this seems, it became the center of a famous controversy. Cole was commissioned by Ithiel Town (1784-1844), a prominent New Haven architect, to paint a picture of Athens that would be a companion piece to one executed simultaneously by Asher B. Durand. One artist was to depict ancient Athens, the other the city as it was then.

Town had a fine library which he shared generously with artists and architects whom he knew, and which included prints and engravings. From this Cole was to receive certain books and engravings, as well as the sum of $500. The agreement was settled upon in 1839, but it seems that Cole did not really like it -- he had never been to Athens, and he felt that he would be obliged to draw too heavily on the use of prints.

All three of these men were members of the National Academy of Design in New York, where the picture was exhibited the following year and where it is supposed that Town saw it for the first time, to his great dissatisfaction and Cole's subsequent anger. Not only did Town dislike the work, but he pointed out that it was not what he had commissioned, and he insisted that Cole was to paint him the view of Athens that had been stipulated. Cole refused, writing harsh, bitter letters about the affair, but in the end he complied to the extent of making Town a small landscape for $250 and keeping the library material he had already received. The rest is silence. The little picture seems to have disappeared, and what we have left is this extraordinary ``dream,'' possibly intended to suggest the treasury of Town's library.

The picture shows us a wide, deep panorama with a shadowy pyramid in the background, and a line of classical buildings, an aqueduct, and a fountain on the sunlit right beside a body of water on which ply beautiful ancient craft. In the left foreground in shadow is the dark silhouette of a Gothic cathedral. All this is set off, as though by a frame, with opulent curtains and the tops of columns with elaborate capitals, done on a large scale. On one of these is the small, reclining figure of Town himself, resting one arm on a pile of great books, a plan next him. He is shown as very handsome, absorbed in his ideas, while beyond and below stretch the waters of the bay, the splendid, noble, sunlit buildings, and the springing fountain. The paintings of Claude Lorraine, J.M.W. Turner, John Martin, and John Britten are thought to have been among those influences that brought about this extravaganza.

Cole's purpose may have been to portray the glories of ancient architecture and point up its relevance to the present, contrasting the clarity of the classical with the ``mystery of the gothic.'' This seems commendable enough, and it is odd that Town took such offense, even though it was not the picture he had expected. Posterity is the gainer in this quarrel, as its details have no importance any more, and the picture remains, evocative, in ways quite beautiful, certainly unique.

Cole was born in England in 1801; his family emigrated to Philadelphia in 1818. First a portrait painter, he then turned to landscapes, falling in love with the beauty of the American continent and becoming the founder of the Hudson River School, famous and successful. His own dream must, it may be inferred, have satisfied him, and he was able to reveal to his new fellow citizens something of the wonders that lay about them.

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