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Overview

Thomas Cole, generally considered America's first important landscape painter, first traveled to Europe in 1829. In London that year he saw and admired the English painter John Constable's great Hadleigh Castle: The Mouth of the Thames–Morning after a Stormy Night, (1829, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), which depicted a ruined medieval tower standing on a high hill. While in Italy in 1831-1832, Cole saw and sketched similar scenes and upon his return to America painted a number of fine pictures of circular towers set in lonely landscapes.  Cole began this painting to fulfill a commission for a scene from Byron's narrative poem, "The Corsair." Encountering difficulties with that subject, he shifted to a different source, Coleridge's introduction to "The Ballad of the Dark Ladie," which includes lines describing a moonlit scene with a ruined medieval tower. However, as Cole struggled to bring the painting to completion, he was beset by doubts and his mood became troubled. As he recorded in his journal on May 19, 1838:

When I remember the great works produced by the masters, how paltry seem the productions of my own pencil; how unpromising the prospect of ever producing pictures that shall delight, and improve posterity, and be regarded with admiration and respect. [1]

Feeling shackled by the demands of illustrating someone else's imagery, Cole abandoned his poetic sources and made the picture into something more purely his own. A few days later, on 22 May 1838, he wrote in his journal:

I am now engaged in painting a Picture representing a Ruined & Solitary Tower that stands on a craggy promontory whose base is laved by a calm unruffled ocean...I think it will be poetical, there is a stillness, a loneliness about it that may reach the Imagination. [2]

Italian Coast Scene with Ruined Tower probably the work Cole exhibited in Boston in 1839 as Italian Seashore, with Tower, was unknown to modern scholarship on Cole until its acquisition by the Gallery in 1993. As one of Cole's major statements on the theme of the mutability of man's creations and the transience of life, it may be seen as a pictorial version of ideas he also expressed in poetry:

Or is it that the fading light remindsThat we are mortal and the latter daySteals onward swiftly, like unseen winds,And all our years are clouds that pass quickly away. [3]

(Text by Franklin Kelly, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation,  2002)Notes1. Quoted in Louis Legrand Noble, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole, ed. Elliot S. Vesell (Cambridge, Mass., 1964), 195-196.

2. Noble 1964.

3. "Evening Thoughts," in Marshall B. Tymn, ed., Thomas Cole's Poetry (York, Pa., 1972), 78-79.

Inscription

lower right: T.Cole [last letter partially obscured by rock]

Provenance

Possibly Hugh D. Scott, Boston, Massachusetts; his daughter, Helen Livingston Scott Greenway [1903-1980], Wellesley and Needham, Massachusetts;[1] her son, James C. Greenway III, Fairfield, Connecticut, and Easton, Maryland, 1962-1993; sold 1 November 1993 through (Martin Chasin Fine Arts, Fairfield, Connecticut) to NGA.

Exhibition History
1839
Possibly Athenaeum Gallery, Boston, 1839, no. 140, as Italian Seashore, with Tower.
2000
Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
2007
America! Storie di pittura dal Nuovo Mondo, Museo di Santa Giulia, Brescia, 2007-2008, no. 66, pl. 66.
2007
Loan to display with permanent collection, Academy Art Museum, Easton, Maryland, 2007, no cat.
Bibliography
1853
Noble, Louis Legrand. The Course of Empire, Voyage of Life, and other Pictures of Thomas Cole, N.A. New York, 1853: 263-264.
1945
Goldwater, Robert, and Marco Treves, eds. Artists on Art. New York, 1945: 281-282.
1964
An Exhibition of Paintings by Thomas Cole, N.A., from the Artist's Studio, Catskill, New York. Exh. cat. Kennedy Galleries, New York, 1964: 13.
1964
Noble, Louis Legrand. The Life and Works of Thomas Cole (1853). Edited by Elliot S. Vesell. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1964: 196.
1969
Novak, Barbara. American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience. New York, 1969: 73-74.
1983
Chambers, Bruce W. "Thomas Cole and the Ruined Tower." Currier Gallery of Art Bulletin (1983): 32.
1988
Parry, Ellwood C., III. The Art of Thomas Cole: Ambition and Imagination. Newark, Delaware, 1988: 200-202, 208.
1989
Parry, Ellwood C., III. "On Return from Arcadia in 1832." In Irma B. Jaffe, ed., The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860. New York and Rome, 1989.
1994
Kelly, Franklin. Jasper Francis Cropsey: The Spirit of War and the Spirit of Peace. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1994: 3.
1996
Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 81-87, color repro.
Technical Summary

The support is a medium-weight, coarsely textured plain-weave fabric that has been lined. Although the original tacking margins have been removed, there is cusping along all four edges. The mortise-and-tenon panel-back stretcher appears to be original. The continuous ground layer is off-white and of medium thickness. A thin pink imprimatura was applied over the ground in the areas of the sky and water; the land forms and tower were painted directly on the white ground. The paint was built up with rich, slightly blended, flowing strokes that give the painting a distinctly brushy quality with low impasto. Infrared reflectography shows extensive underdrawing defining major compositional elements in several areas. The only area indicating significant changes is along the horizon at the left, where underdrawing shows another island with arched architectural forms; the position of the moon was changed several times. There are no major losses and only scattered areas of small paint loss, particularly in the sky. Some darker areas, especially the foreground hillside and the tower, have drying cracks that were minimized by inpainting in 1993.