Thomas Cole. Oil on canvas, 1843, 48 x 32 ½ in. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Purchased from the artist by Alfred Smith, Daniel Wadsworth, and the original subscribers to the Wadsworth Atheneum, 1844.6.
Before Cole's first trip abroad in 1829-32, his friend William Cullen Bryant penned a gentle warning to him in the form of a poem:
Thine eyes shall see the light of distant skies:
Yet, Cole! thy heart shall bear to Europe's strand
A living image of our own bright land,
Such as upon thy glorious canvas lies;
Lone lakes—savannas where the bison roves—
Rocks rich with summer garlands- solemn streams—
Skies, where the desert eagle wheels and screams—
Spring bloom and autumn blaze of boundless groves.
Fair scenes shall greet thee where thou goest—fair,
But different—everywhere the trace of men,
Paths, homes, graves, ruins, from the lowest glen
To where life shrinks from the fierce Alpine air.
Gaze on them, till the tears shall dim thy sight,
But keep that earlier, wilder image bright. 1
Despite Bryant's admonitions, and the nationalistic sentiments that Cole himself expressed in own writings on American scenery, the artist fell in love with the Italian landscape—a love reflected in his many depictions of famous Italian sites. He returned to Italy for a second time in 1841-42, where he visited Sicily for six weeks. There he saw Mount Etna, a massive snow-covered volcano that looms over the area. Traveling with another artist, Cole climbed the volcano by night and arrived at its summit just in time to see the sunrise. Writing of the event in The Knickerbocker magazine in 1844, Cole exclaimed:
It was a glorious sight which spread before our eyes! We took a hasty glance into the gloomy crater of the volcano, and throwing ourselves on the warm ashes, gazed in wonder and astonishment. It would be vain for me to attempt a description of the scene. I scarcely knew the world in which I had lived. The hills and valleys over which we had been traveling for many days, were comprised within the compass of a momentary glance. 2
After the descent from Mount Etna, the pair traveled to Taormina, where Cole made several sketches of the ruins of a Greek amphitheater with the volcano in the background.
Returning to New York, Cole worked on Mount Etna from Taormina in the new rooms of the National Academy of Design, based on the sketches he had drawn at the site. Astonishingly, he completed this monumental canvas (nearly 10 feet in length) in only five days and exhibited it at his one-man show at the National Academy in December 1843. It is only one of many depictions of Mount Etna that Cole executed after his second Italian sojourn. The painting was acquired by the newly established Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, founded by the artist's long-time patron, Daniel Wadsworth. 3