Realism elevated to idealism

This surprisingly small painting - not much more than 3 feet by 2 - epitomizes the characteristically awe-inspiring scale and majesty of Hudson River School landscape painting. These 19th-century artists recognized in American landscape a serene and vast wilderness that might symbolize the expansive ambitions of the nation as well as offering an imaginative escape from its rapid urbanization.

Thomas Cole, preeminent among the school's founders, went further. He aimed at what he termed "a higher style of landscape." He thought its realism should be elevated to idealism. When Robert Gilmor, one of Cole's patrons, suggested Cole paint "some known subject from [James Fenimore] Cooper's novels," Cole painted more than one such subject. "Scene from 'The Last of the Mohicans,' Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund" is a fine example. It was intended for Gilmor, but Hartford collector Daniel Wadsworth bought it first; Cole painted a copy for Gilmor.

"The Last of the Mohicans" (1826) was instantly a bestselling book. It is set in the wilderness that inspired Cole. This wilderness remains the main subject of the Wadsworth picture. But it is idealized - a compendium of elements, some from imagination and some observed in the White Mountains (not, as Cooper describes, in the Lake George region). Cole has made the impassioned episode from the novel miniature, and the scale of the setting is increased in proportion. Yet the human drama draws the eye. The circle of Delawares, the desperation of the captured sisters, the judgment of the patriarchal chieftain, come directly from the novel, as does the elevated platform. But Cole intensifies both narrative and landscape by the precipice below the jutting rocks and by the silhouetted backdrop of erect outcroppings. And he has captured with extraordinary subtlety the misty percolation of dawn light falling on the scene.

This masterpiece is included in "Nature and the Nation," a traveling exhibition of Hudson River School works from the Wadsworth Atheneum, on view at the St. Louis Art Museum until Sept. 11.

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