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Current time:0:00Total duration:4:30

Dreaming big, Thomas Cole paints 4,500 years of architectural history in The Architect's Dream

Video transcript

(piano music) - [Lawrence] We're at the Toledo Museum of Art. Standing in front of a large painting by Thomas Cole. This is The Architect's Dream. It was painted in 1840 and America had never seen anything like it. We see the capital of a great classical column and impossibly, on top of that, laid out as if he were a classical figure, this young man, clearly an architect, holding a drawing in his hand, lying on books, lying on knowledge itself. - [Steven] He's holding a floor plan of a Roman or Greek temple with his eyes shut, he's imaging the past and therefore thinking about what he as an architect can do in the future. And just below and one reads, Painted by T. Cole for I. Town, Arch, abbreviation for Architect, 1840. - [William] Ithiel Town asked Cole to paint for him a landscape of ancient Athens but Cole clearly deviated. - [Steven] And Ithiel Town therefore rejected this painting. He wanted a landscape with Athens in it and instead, Cole paints this menagerie of architectural styles over millennia and Town is quoted as saying "He liked the mixture "of different ages and styles in the same imaginary picture" but nonetheless, he rejected the painting, he didn't fully pay for it. It ended up back with Cole and it stayed in the Cole family until the Toledo Museum of Art acquired it. Town wanted an identifiable landscape. - [William] What Cole does give us is a fantastical history of the great architecture of the Western tradition. - [Steven] Egyptian pyramid with Egyptian temple in the background, obelisks in front of it and then in the middle ground, a Doric Greek temple with a pilastered wall leading to an Ionic Greek temple above which rests the Roman Tempietto, the round temple we see with Corinthian columns and the Roman aqueduct behind it and of course, there's even more. - [William] But all rendered on a gargantuan scale. You can see these tiny human figures. This is a scale that even the brilliance of Roman engineers would never achieve. I think to understand this painting, it's important to understand how these architectural styles were understood in the 19th century. The Egyptian, the Greek, the Roman styles were considered to be ideal, perfect architecture that we in the modern world could only hope to re-achieve. And it's interesting to me that cole has separated that great tradition from the Gothic by the body of water. This is the side of the painting that we're on. This is closer to our historical moment and yet it's in shadow. It's not the height of man's achievement as the classical had been seen. But despite that, there is some light that comes through and it comes through those stained glass windows. And that is the spirituality of the Gothic. - [Steven] And Cole is including that because Town worked in that style as well. It's important also to have an awareness that the fantasy we're looking at is even accentuated by these framing arches with curtains pulled back. This is a stage set. - [William] And even as that figure may represent Ithiel Town's fantasy, of course ultimately, it's the artist. Although America had never seen a painting like this, this painting is not coming out of thin area. There was a tradition in Europe of architectural fantasy. - [Steven] Cole who was born in England traveled back to Europe on two occasions and on these trips he saw great works of art by Claude Lorrain, the 17th century French artist. He saw a paintings of the contemporary artist Turner and so he was influenced by what they had done in a fantasy modality, allegorical landscapes commenting on human history and human civilization and this is an artist to then would paint such series as the course of empire and here in our painting in the Toledo Museum of Art, he's encapsulating in one large canvas an exploration of the past and Ithiel Town, even though he didn't like the painting, we have it today as this architect and as Cole are musing about the future. (piano music)