Il Penseroso

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Il Penseroso

United States, 1845
Paintings
Oil on canvas
Canvas: 32 3/8 × 48 1/16 in. (82.23 × 122.08 cm) Frame: 45 1/2 × 61 1/2 × 4 in. (115.57 × 156.21 × 10.16 cm)
Trustees Fund, Corporate Donors, and General Acquisition Fund (M.80.115)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

Although Cole made his early reputation with his romantic interpretations of the American wilderness, his chief interest was in ideal landscapes rather than realistic depictions of specific locations....
Although Cole made his early reputation with his romantic interpretations of the American wilderness, his chief interest was in ideal landscapes rather than realistic depictions of specific locations. He painted his first pair of ideal compositions, The Garden of Eden, 1828 (unlocated), and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, 1828 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), even before his first trip to Europe in 1829, by which time he already had compiled a long list of ideal subjects; among them the paired titles L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. Paired and serial paintings were to occupy much of his interest and best efforts over the following years. A commission from the collector Charles M. Parker permitted Cole to undertake the paintings L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. On January 8, 1844, Cole wrote to Parker: "I intend to commence two pictures, to be called L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. In the first picture, I should represent a sunny luxuriant landscape, with figures engaged variously in gay pastimes or pleasant occupation. In the second picture, I would represent some ivy clad ruin in the solemn evening twilight, with a solitary figure musing among the decaying grandeur .... The subject ... is one upon which I can work conamore." The paintings are dated 1845 and were exhibited at the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design in the spring of 1846, but with the titles Italian Sunset and View of Lago de Nemi, near Rome. Il Penseroso is based fairly closely upon a detailed view of Lake Nemi with the town of Nemi that Cole had drawn in 1832. He drew the shrine on the notebook’s facing page, as a repositioned foreground element of the landscape, and transferred its design to the painting with the same degree of fidelity, leading one to conclude that the shrine was an actual structure, possibly at that location. The trees behind the shrine and figure before it are the only major elements not present in the drawing. In contrast to Il Penseroso’s specific and realistic portrayal, L’Allegro seems to be a completely ideal and imaginary landscape. The conventionally picturesque composition resembles a sketch now apparently misidentified as a study for the 1838 painting A Dream of Arcadia. To this framework Cole introduced various architectural elements. The art historian Wayne Craven has pointed out the resemblance of the Doric colonnade in the left distance to the early Greek temples in Italy that Cole had traveled to see and paint in 1832 and 1842. The other ruins are more difficult to identify specifically. The right foreground arches, which resume on the other side of the river, could be the remains of a Roman bridge, but they also recall the Claudian aqueduct painted by Cole on several occasions. The brickwork, however, is unlike that in Cole’s other depictions of the monument. The softness of Cole’s rendering of the circular temple on the extreme right suggests that he did not intend to depict any specific ruin. The hilltop town near the center of the painting likewise has a generalized, ideal quality, unlike the detailed accuracy of Cole’s rendering of the town of Nemi in Il Penseroso. Whereas Il Penseroso is an actual view, L’Allegro belongs to the tradition of ideal arcadian landscapes composed by Cole and many others of his generation and earlier. The titles Il Penseroso and L’Allegro refer to a pair of poems by John Milton, one characterizing a cheerful and the other a melancholy outlook. Cole’s landscapes contain none of the setting and specific detail of the poems (except, in a general sense, for the dance in L’Allegro), but they do present contrasting moods. Rather than illustrating the poems, the paintings translate their overall meaning into the visual language of landscape. The pair represents approximately the same time of day, late afternoon, but the degree of brightness and relative warmth of the light differ because of the terrain. The horizon of L’Allegro is low, the foreground water reflecting even more of the generous expanse of sky. The distance of the one large hill contributes to the feeling of openness and light. The scene is bathed in the warm Claudian light of contentment. In a landscape filled with references to antiquity, the foreground dancer, his pose modeled after the Dancing Faun from the House of the Faun in Pompeii (Museo Nazionale, Naples), suggests the survival of a pagan strain among the peasants of the day, as had Donatello in Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun. L’Allegro evokes the innocent joyfulness of the arcadian ideal. In contrast, the encircling walls of Lake Nemi’s crater in Il Penseroso shut out both light and sky, their shaggy slopes looming ominously. The painting is both darker and cooler than L’Allegro. The rough foreground foliage and forested background seem more agitated than the broad expanse of smoothness of L’Allegro. Although the foreground of Il Penseroso is near the Grove of Diana, off to the left, and the site recalls the pagan past (with some of its most somber associations), the painting is dominated by associations with Italy’s Christian piety: a shrine to the Virgin built upon the medieval fortifications of Nemi. In contrast to the merry peasants of L’Allegro, the foreground figure kneels with an abjectness suggesting grief. The pair of paintings expresses the sense of Milton’s poems in terms of highly sophisticated concepts-in the opposition of the conventions of picturesque and sublime landscape and in terms of Italian architectural and intellectual history. As embodied in these paintings, Cole’s concept of ideal landscape is so rich with intellectual and poetic content that the two form a complex unit, depending upon each other for their complete meaning.
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About The Era

The art of the early Federal period did not greatly differ from that of the late colonial era. Portraits dominated the small field of painting....
The art of the early Federal period did not greatly differ from that of the late colonial era. Portraits dominated the small field of painting. Victories on land and at sea in the War of 1812 brought the fledgling democracy greater confidence and new national pride. By 1829, when Andrew Jackson assumed the presidency, the foundations for an independent culture were securely laid. The philosopher-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed the mood of the country in 1837: “our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close.” The following decades would bring a swell of artistic creativity, focused on native themes that extolled the seemingly limitless bounty of the New World.
Portraiture, and to a lesser extent history painting, continued to occupy American artists, but increasing numbers turned to views of the local countryside and its inhabitants. Although the industrial revolution only began in the United States after the War of 1812, the following three decades witnessed economic changes, especially in the north, that significantly affected working conditions, family structure, and even religion. Paintings illustrated American virtues like ingenuity and industry as well as the pleasures of country life. The new taste for genre pictures—scenes of ordinary people involved in everyday activities—seemed ideally suited to the egalitarian attitude of the Jacksonian era.
This period also saw the rise of the country’s first truly national school of landscape painting, ultimately known as the Hudson River school. Its earliest, best-known exponent, Thomas Cole, sometimes painted romantic literary subjects in European settings, but his dramatic depictions of the American wilderness helped spur the popularity of American views. As the country developed, paintings of uninhabited wilderness were replaced by views of farms, towns, and factories, but American artists retained their sense of awe about the land.
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Label

Thomas Cole derived the settings for most of his imaginative themes from his experiences in Italy....
Thomas Cole derived the settings for most of his imaginative themes from his experiences in Italy. He preferred to present his ideas in serial paintings set in picturesque landscapes cluttered with crumbling arches, classical aqueducts, and temples, as in this pair. Although L’Allegro does not represent a specific site, Il Penseroso is based on pencil drawings Cole made of Lake Nemi, near Rome. Cole seems to suggest that despite all of mankind’s achievements, it is nature that is eternal, blessed by a higher spirit than mere humanity. The intertwined foliate motif on this frame incorporates scrollwork and natural vegetation, here leaves and berries, in an American adaptation from filigreed Louis XIV models. This frame is the original one and is characteristic of those Cole used for his 1830s and 1840s landscapes.
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Bibliography

  • About the Era.
  • Einzig, Barbara, ed. Los Angeles County Museum of Art Report, July 1, 1979-June 30, 1981. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1982.
  • Fort, Ilene Susan and Michael Quick.  American Art:  a Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection.  Los Angeles:  Museum Associates, 1991.
  • About the Era.
  • Einzig, Barbara, ed. Los Angeles County Museum of Art Report, July 1, 1979-June 30, 1981. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1982.
  • Fort, Ilene Susan and Michael Quick.  American Art:  a Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection.  Los Angeles:  Museum Associates, 1991.
  • Morgan, David and Promey, Sally M.  The Visual Culture of American Religions.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  • Accademia di Francia a Roma; Commune di Roma; Direction des Musées de France; Ministero per I Bene e le Attivita Culturali; Musei Vaticani; and Università à Roma Tre.  Maestà di Roma: Da Napoleone all'Unità d'Italia.  Milan: Mondadori Electa SpA, 2003.
  • LACMA: Obras Maestras 1750-1950: Pintura Estadounidense Del Museo De Arte Del Condado De Los Angeles. Mexico, D.F.: Museo Nacional de Arte, 2006.
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