Lot 43
  • 43

THOMAS COLE | Sunset on the Arno

600,000 - 800,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Thomas Cole
  • Sunset on the Arno
  • signed T. Cole. (lower right)
  • oil on canvas
  • 32 by 51  1/4  inches
  • (81.3 by 130.2 cm)
  • Painted in 1837.


Private collection
Acquired by the present owner, by 1980


University Park, Pennsylvania, Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University, All That Is Glorious Around Us: Paintings from the Hudson River School on Loan from a Friend of the Museum of Art, January-March 1981, no. 12, pp. 58, 122, illustrated p. 59
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, The American Landscape Tradition, November 1982-January 1983
Washington, D.C., National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; Hartford, Connecticut, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art; New York, New-York Historical Society, Thomas Cole: Landscape into History, March 1994-March 1995, no. 34, p. 174, illustrated p. 178
Annville, Pennsylvania, Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery, Lebanon Valley College, Passages: Images of Transition in 19th-Century American Landscape Painting, August-October 1995
Greensburg, Pennsylvania, Westmoreland Museum of American Art; University Park, Pennsylvania, Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University; Worcester, Massachusetts, Worcester Art Museum; New York, The National Academy, All That Is Glorious Around Us: Paintings from the Hudson River School, August 1997-September 1999, illustrated p. 12
Greensburg, Pennsylvania, Westmoreland Museum of American Art; New Paltz, New York, Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, State University of New York at New Paltz; University Park, Pennsylvania, Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University; Scranton, Pennsylvania, Everhart Museum; Winchester, Virginia, Museum of the Shenandoah Valley; Reading, Pennsylvania, Reading Public Museum; Austin, Texas, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, American Scenery: Different Views in Hudson River School Painting, August 2005-May 2012, p. 156, illustrated p. 23


Louis Legrand Noble, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1964, p. 102
Howard S. Merritt, Thomas Cole, Rochester, New York, 1969, p. 33

Catalogue Note

Thomas Cole’s singular legacy remains as the progenitor of the Hudson River School, the first native art movement born within the United States. Learning from Cole, ensuing generations of painters working within this genre were able to visually parallel the untapped resources of the American wilderness with the potent energy of a maturing nation. Born in Lancaster, England in 1801, Cole emigrated to the United States with his family and settled in Philadelphia when he was seventeen. By 1825 Cole had moved repeatedly, spending time in Ohio and Pittsburgh, before arriving in New York where he traveled up the Hudson River for the first time. The young painter quickly rose to significant prominence within New York’s cultural community to become one of the founding members of the National Academy of Design the same year.

Cole’s early success enabled him to take the "Grand Tour" in 1829, visiting England, France and Italy over a three year period. While he virulently disliked the French artists of his day, Cole found refuge in the natural splendor of Italy. Like many in the American cultural and intellectual elite of the early nineteenth century, Cole developed a strong interest in the compelling duality of Italian history. Visiting Americans could marvel at the former majesty and achievement of their Roman past, lamenting its dissolution ever-present in the Romantic ruins and crumbling aqueducts, and claiming their nation as the intellectual successor to the Classical world. 

Compared to the robust, unconquerable landscapes that define Cole’s Hudson River paintings, Sunset on the Arno presents a softer, more tranquil version of nature. Defined by the serpentine Arno river, which eaves through the foreground and middleground of the picture, the composition encourages the viewer’s eye to meander through the picturesque countryside. To the right and above in the distance are the dark woods of the Cascine. Beyond them, the mountain summit half dissolves in the vapory splendor of an Italian sunset. Although there are several structures present in the composition, they too seem only a degree removed from the natural world, mere elements of the background and not the intended subject of the work. An airy warmth radiates from the fading sun and the river is denoted by pale amber tones with highlights of dusty pinks and warmer blues.

As with his trips through Upstate New York and New England, Cole kept sketchbooks full of careful pictorial and written notes while traveling through Italy. He heavily relied on this documentation as an aide-mémoire for his studio compositions. Cole rarely based his final canvases on a single sketch or description, choosing instead to amalgamate multiple sources combined with elements from his imagination. Per this working process, Cole completed Sunset on the Arno in 1837, five years following his return to North America, and one year after he completed his celebrated series The Course of Empire (1833-36, New-York Historical Society, New York). As in his best compositions, the present work demonstrates Cole's unique ability to “draw a veil over the common details, the unessential parts, which shall leave the great features, whether the beautiful or the sublime, dominant in the mind” (Matthew Baigell, Thomas Cole, New York, 1981, p. 13).

This harmonization of precise details of compositional elements, such as the charming river boats and their canopies, with the atmospheric and ambiguous setting of countryside bathed in early evening light, creates a compellingly timeless vision of Italy. The stillness and tranquility of the composition presents the viewer with a vista that feels unaffected by time, and a way of life lived in continuity for centuries. The Italian landscape offered the American creative intellect a tangible heritage—a visible past which was not found in the uncultivated wilderness of their native land.