Thomas Cole: The Architect's Dream

An in-painting tour

The Architect's Dream (1840) by Thomas Cole (American, born England, 1801–1848)The Toledo Museum of Art

Ever had a dream in which everything seems bigger and grander than life? Thomas Cole captures this dreamlike quality in his ambitious architectural fantasy, The Architect’s Dream.

Though Cole based the buildings in the painting on real structures, he modified and altered them, arranging them so that they illustrate a progression of 4,000 years of some of Western civilization’s greatest architectural achievements.

In addition, he used scale and especially light to convey ideas about the cultures that created these monuments.

For example, the ordered, rational architecture of ancient Greece and Rome is bathed in light…

…while the cathedral is shrouded in shadow, suggestive of the mysteries of medieval faith.

Towering impossibly high in the distance, the Old Kingdom (2665–2155 BCE) Egyptian pyramid is the oldest structure in the painting.

Packed with immense papyrus-capital columns, the Egyptian temple dates from New Kingdom Egypt (1550–1080 BCE).

Cole likely took inspiration for some of his ancient architectural marvels, like the Egyptian temple, from the illustrations in an important set of architectural books by J. N. L. Durand (French, 1760–1834).

Dwarfed by the Egyptian temple, a Greek temple of the Doric order represents the dawn of classical architecture and the harmonious perfection of monuments like the Parthenon (5th century BCE).

The Doric temple is similar to those in the ancient Greek city of Paestum in southern Italy (Magna Graecia), a site which Cole had visited in 1832.

A graceful Ionic Greek temple looms behind the dreaming architect.

Its pediment sculpture depicts Athena, goddess of wisdom and battle and patron and namesake of the city of Athens, seated at the center.

Inspired by Greek architecture, a long wall with attached rectangular pillars (pilasters) links the two Greek temples.

The domed Roman temple with Corinthian capitals rests on top of the Greek wall, showing literally and figuratively that Greece was the foundation for Roman civilization.

The relief of swags running around the drum of the dome is among the details that suggest that Cole's Roman temple was inspired by the designs in the seminal 1st-century BCE books on architecture by Vitruvius.

Throughout the painting, as in a dream, Cole has exaggerated the scale of the buildings.

Behind the Roman temple is a Roman aqueduct—a long series of rounded arches that carried water in channels across long distances.

The Gothic cathedral represents the highest architectural—and spiritual—achievement of the Middle Ages.

The cathedral is strongly reminiscent of Salisbury Cathedral in England, as found in an illustration in the 1836 book Cathedral Antiquities by John Britton, which Cole would have had access to.

The dreamer—framed by a massive arch with curtains pulled back to reveal the fantastic dreamscape—reclines on the top of a gigantic column.

He’s resting, eyes closed, against enormous folios of architectural designs and holds the plan of a Greek temple.

The tools of his trade are strewn around him:




and calipers.

He may represent an architect or perhaps the very idea and practice of Architecture.

Carved into the stone block below him (the abacus) is the inscription: “PAINTED BY T. COLE / FOR I. TOWN ARCHt, / 1840.”

“I. Town Archt” was renowned New Haven, Connecticut-based architect Ithiel Town (1784-1844), who helped popularize the Greek and Gothic revival styles in the United States.

In 1839, Town commissioned Cole to paint a view of the city of Athens—either the ancient or modern city. Having never been to Athens, Cole felt uncomfortable with the subject.

Instead, Cole constructed an architectural fantasy that featured historical styles that Town himself had used in his designs.

But when Town saw the finished painting in 1840, he refused to accept it.

Town wrote to Cole:

“Your picture is a fine Architectural painting—you are aware however, that my friend Cole is very celebrated for painting rich Landscapes, with Architecture, History, etc., intermixed. I was therefore desirous of such a Landscape from your brush. […] I wish the landscape to predominate—the Architecture, History, etc., to be various and subservient….”

Cole was “surprised and mortified exceedingly” by Town’s reaction to the painting. He replied:

"The picture I have painted is one of the best I have ever painted, it has been as much admired as any single picture of mine…. […] Whatever hope I may have that you will yet view the picture more favorably, I will not trouble you with any further defense of it or myself and will conclude by saying that I have seldom experienced so great a disappointment…."

Town never did “view the picture more favorably” and Cole never painted another painting for him.

The Architect’s Dream, still inscribed to “I. Town”, remained in Cole’s family, unsold, until it was acquired by the Toledo Museum of Art in 1949. Today, it is one of his most famous and admired paintings and a highlight of TMA’s collection.

Credits: Story

Toledo Museum of Art
Toledo, Ohio

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