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.
These two pencil sketches and the accompanying oil study are three examples of Cole's en plein air sketching process during his second trip to Italy (1841-42). In Mt. Etna from Taormina, Cole created a very detailed study of the ruins of the amphitheater, with light pencil marks in the background delineating the summit of the mountain. At the top of the sheet, he recorded his emotional response to the view: "What a magnificent site! Aetna with its eternal snows towering in the heavens—the ranges of nearer mountains—the deep romantic valley—the bay of Naxos...I have never seen anything like it. The views from Taormina certainly excel anything I have ever seen."
The second pencil sketch, Taormina, is a view of the amphitheater looking westward, in a vertical format (rare for Cole). The ruins here are even more detailed, and Cole has added a figure with a hat, perhaps a picturesque Italian resident or a surrogate for the artist. Instead of Mount Etna in the background, we see Monte Tauro; this indicates that Cole worked from several different viewpoints.
With the outlines of the forms recorded in his sketchbook, Cole moved on to the oil sketch, in which he used thick, wet brushstrokes to mark down the colors and effects of light on the scene. 1 Interestingly, a fog hides the top of Mount Etna at midday. 2
Executing oil sketches en plein air was an arduous endeavor in Cole's time. According to his contemporary William Dunlap, Cole mixed his paints in the field, which would have necessitated carrying a heavy muller and grinding stone. 3 The artist's correspondence indicates that Cole also purchased premixed paints stored in pig's bladders for his en plein air work, 4 but these could easily burst and spoil the already-completed sketches he was carrying. In order to work in the open air, he also needed to carry a paint box, palettes, brushes, sketchbooks, boards or wooden panels to paint on, an umbrella, and a folding chair.
Back in his makeshift studio at the National Academy, Cole combined the information from the pencil and oil sketches to create the finished painting. This work, executed quickly in thin, gestural strokes resulting in scumbled paint surfaces, allows the warm, red ground to show through. Cole's journals indicate that he pondered complicated color theories found in manuals such as George Field's Chromatics (1817) and that he favored warm grounds throughout his career for carefully considered coloristic effects. 5 Given the luminous, mellow qualities of Italian light, the choice of red ground color is particularly appropriate for the subject. Significantly, the painterly qualities of this late work contrast with the more controlled surfaces of his earlier paintings.
1. Thomas Cole, <cite>Mt. Etna from Taormina</cite>, pencil on toned paper, 1842, 11 5/8 x 32 ½ in. Detroit Institute of Arts. Founder Soiety Purchase, William H. Murphy Fund, 39.400. View in Virtual Gallery
2. Thomas Cole, <cite>Taormina</cite>, Pencil on toned paper, 1842, 14 ¾ x 10 7/16 in. Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, William H. Murphy Fund, 39.398. View in Virtual Gallery
3. Thomas Cole, <cite>The Ruins at Taormina</cite>, oil and pencil on board, 1842, 12 x 16 1/8 in. Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., NY. View in Virtual Gallery
4. Thomas Cole, <cite>Mount Etna From Taormina, Sicily</cite>, 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.