July 06: the architect’s dream

2012/07/06 § Leave a comment

During this month in 1840 Thomas Cole unveiled The Architect’s Dream at the National Academy of Design in New York.

Is there a better architecture painting?  The Muse thinks not, but she’d be happy to hear your suggestions otherwise (she promises to be gentle in her response).  The Architect’s Dream portrays a wee architect in the foreground, held aloft on the top of an honorific column (that’s the only kind that is supposed to stand alone, you know) (an invention of the Romans–of course).  The scene he surveys is the stuff of his nineteenth-century dreams: all of history laid out before him.  The Classical world in bright sunlight: Greek temples, an Egyptian sanctuary and pyramid; a Gothic church in the shadowy left of the canvas.  This was the period in which architects gobbled up everything from the “civilized” past that they could get their hands on.  The Muse could hardly keep up with all the attention; her dance card was full.

The title of the painting is worth a squint.  It’s “the” architect, not “an,” because that’s a particular person in the foreground, Ithiel Town, who commissioned the painting.  In addition to the fine, historically-inspired buildings that he designed in partnership with Alexander Jackson Davis (they did this!  and this!), Town was famous for the extraordinarily gigantic library that he collected, numbering upwards of 11,000 volumes (keep in mind that Thomas Jefferson, who was a little bit of a reader too, had only about 6,500 books to offer the Library of Congress in 1815).  Books had become increasingly available and import to architectural practice, since they provided visual access to the famous monuments that architects were desperate to learn about, but which they found it very hard to travel to (especially true for American architects).

The books are important because that’s really what the painting is about.  The historic structures are what the architect sees in his waking dream, a vision made possible by the books on which Town reclines–they are his comfort and foundation.  As they should be to all of us.

Image: The Architect’s Dream by Thomas Cole (Toledo Museum of Art)

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