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Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, 1828, oil on canvas, 100.96 x 138.43 cm / 39-3/4 x 54-1/2 inches (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. We're looking at a really early Thomas Cole. This is the "Expulsion from Eden." DR. BETH HARRIS: Normally when we think about that subject, we might think about images from the Italian Renaissance, like Masaccio's "Expulsion from the Garden of Eden" or the "Expulsion" by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Those are paintings of Adam and Eve, of the two figures. But Cole has transformed this into a landscape painting. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We can barely find Adam and Eve. It takes us a moment, in part because they're so small. But he has given us this over-the-top operatic treatment that starkly contrasts the garden that is Eden, God's paradise, with the terror of the wilderness beyond. I read this painting from right to left instead of from left to right. I begin in the brighter Eden. And Cole has given us this fantastic vista. We can see these crystalline mountains that reach up to Heaven and then slope down to these lovely glades and a tropical paradise. And as we move towards the foreground, we can just make out two swans in a pool. DR. BETH HARRIS: We even see waterfalls down those purplish mountains. And this whole area of Eden is flooded with light. And everything seems verdant and lush. But that's contrasted with the left side of the painting, where we see Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden. And we feel a blast of light that expels them from the Garden of Eden that obviously represents a divine force. Nature is much bleaker. Trees have been struck by lightning and ravaged by time. The colors are browns, and there's sharp contrasts of light and dark. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: You can actually see a storm in the sky that frames a volcano. Adam holds his hand up to this forehead. Eve clutches at his hand. They know they're in deep trouble. And as if to make that point even more clearly, in the lower left, we see a wild animal that's felled a deer and is protecting it against an approaching vulture. This new culture, this new American nation, did not have what Europe had. It did not have ancient ruins. It did not have ancient cultures. But at the beginning of the 19th century, philosophers, and writers, and painters began to recognize that its wilderness was, in a sense, its great heritage. DR. BETH HARRIS: That's right, but American painters knew that landscape was a low kind of art in the hierarchy established by the academies in Europe. They knew that landscape was looked down on. And one way that you could ennoble a landscape and raise it up to a higher level, to the level of a history painting, was to make it the setting for heroic human endeavor for biblical stories. And that's exactly what Cole has done. American artists are always wanting to be taken seriously. But because of the artistic situation in America, they're often forced to paint subjects that their clients want, which are not the noblest subjects-- simple landscapes and portraits. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So this painting in some ways might have been a challenge to its American public, who were used to more prosaic images. And here, Cole is attempting something more ambitious. DR. BETH HARRIS: Cole wants to be a serious painter. And he can't do that by simply painting the Catskills, as he's going to later do. He returns again and again to these more serious subjects, "The Voyage of Life," "The Course of Empire." DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: But all stories that can be enacted in the landscape.