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In the late 1700s and early 1800s the neoclassical style became popular in the United States. In architecture this style included the use of motifs from Roman and Grecian temples.  Buildings were designed with Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian columns, and classical pediments and domes were used.  Serious, important buildings, such as governmental buildings, were designed in this style. The idea of reaching to the old world of Rome and Athens to confer seriousness or importance wasn’t just used in architecture. Painters used visual cues in their American landscape work to harken back to the grand empires of Europe to bring some of that majesty to the U.S.’s visual landscape.

Thomas Cole finished The Last of the Mohicans in ca.1827 in the midst of the neoclassical revival.  This painting is one in a set of four based on James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans, published in 1826.  It depicts a large rock formation in what, as one’s imagination runs wild, must be a vast landscape in a remote area.  Right in the lower middle part of the painting is flat grassy space.  A large group of Native Americans have formed a circle on the grass.  Within the circle there are some animals and three figures.  While the focus of the painting is on the depiction of a scene from the book, the landscape portion of the painting evokes grandeur and majesty.  While Euro-Americans would not think of the United States as being like Europe with an ancient history and ancient buildings, the large untamed nature of the US could compare in wildness and vastness with Europe’s ruins.  Europe might have Rome and Athens and a history of great thinkers, but during this period America was new and young and unexplored with great potential that only a young country can have.  The majesty of the United States was equal to the ancient ruins of Europe in the eyes of the American painters.

For more information about Cole’s painting and The Last of the Mohicans see:

http://external.oneonta.edu/cooper/articles/suny/2011suny-katz.html

http://external.oneonta.edu/cooper/articles/ala/2008ala-schwartz.html

Images from Fenimore Art Museum/New York State Historical Association and The Farmers’ Museum collection include fine art, folk art, photography, Native American art and farm related objects.  Images of objects in the collections are available for scholarly or commercial publication, personal reproduction or research.  Photographic images must be requested through the Rights and Reproductions Department.

C. Wolf

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