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Titan’s Goblet, by Thomas Cole

Henry David Thoreau once said, “This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” An American artist known for his historical landscape paintings, Thomas Cole, was seen as the founder of the Hudson River School, an art movement that prospered in the middle of the 19th century. Cole’s artwork is well known for its romantic representation of the American wilderness. Possibly the most mysterious of Cole’s metaphorical or fictional landscape scenes was The Titan’s Goblet which was painted in 1833. Often times, Cole would supply writing to support his paintings; however, he decided not to comment on this piece which left his intentions open for debate.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Titans Goblet is a work that “defies full explanation.”[1] Many have called this work a picture within a picture and a landscape within a landscape: the goblet sits on traditional terrain, but its occupants reside along the rim in their very own world. The entire brim is slathered in vegetation, separated by only two small buildings, an Italian palace, and a Geek temple. The deep waters are spotted with sailing boats and as it leaks onto the ground underneath, grass and a more fundamental civilization spring up.

Theophilus Stringfellow, Jr. described it as a “self-contained, microcosmic human world in the midst of vast nature,” while John M. Falconer connected the “monumental stem of the goblet to the trunk of the Norse world tree; he likened the cup to the ramifying branches . . . Which spread out and hold between them an ocean dotted with sails, surrounded by dense forests and plains.”[2]

As previously mentioned, various theories and themes have been argued throughout the years on what Coles true intentions are in The Titan’s Goblet. Around the 1880s, one understanding linked the goblet to the world tree and particularly to the Norse mythology’s very own Yggdrasil. A 1904 catalog carried out this theory, saying that “the spiritual idea in the center of the painting, conveying the beautiful Norse theory that life and the world is but a tree with ramifying branches, is carefully carried out by the painter”[3]. However, it is not evident that Cole would have been accustomed to this notion, and detractor Elwood Parry proposed that the probability to any legendary tree is restricted to the equivalence of the goblet’s stem to a tree trunk. With that being said, nothing about the cup compares to roots or branches.

Another hypothesis of this work advocates that the goblet’s supremacy in the picture might indicate a cosmological explanation. Elwood Parry contemplates but declines a correlation with the outside panels of the Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch, which are typically taken to represent Earth’s creation. Both of the pictures illustrate a restrained world but use land and water in contradicting fractions. The Goblet provides neither iconography nor an engraving that would declare a theological exposition of the painting. Moreover, the artist has positioned the goblet far off from the heart of the canvas, therefore, minimizing its symbolic importance.

A companion and biographer of Thomas Cole, Louis Legrand Noble was highly relied on to have some insight or explanation on the work. However, according to his comments, there is no statement for any of these ideas. He wrote,

“There [the goblet] stands, rather reposes upon its shaft, a tower-like mossy
structure, light as a bubble, and yet a section of a substantial globe. As the eye circles
its wide rolling brim, a circumference of many miles, it finds itself in fairy land; in
accordance though with nature on her broadest scale… Tourists might travel in the
countries of this imperial ring, and trace their fancies on many a romantic page.
Here steeped in the golden splendors of a summer sunset, is a little sea from Greece,
or Holy Land, with Greek and Syrian life, Greek and Syrian nature looking out upon
its quiet waters.”[4]

So, after witnessing and learning about the various types of theories that were presented for Thomas Cole’s The Titan’s Goblet, one can clearly gather that it has its own unique meaning for each person that may come across it whether it be due to religion, others’ opinions, or ones own thoughts. Although researchers believed that a good friend and columnist of Thomas Cole such as Noble would have some positive insight toward the subject, his answer just goes to show that everyone has their own perspective toward certain questions.

  • Connor Kearney, Marist College

[1] “Thomas Cole | The Titan’s Goblet | The Met.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I.e. The Met Museum. Accessed October 25, 2016.

[2] “Thomas Cole | The Titan’s Goblet | The Met.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I.e. The Met Museum. Accessed October 25, 2016.

[3] Perry, Elwood C. “Thomas Cole’s ‘The Titan’s Goblet’: A Reinterpretation.” 1971. Accessed November 1, 2016.

[4] Perry, Elwood C. “Thomas Cole’s ‘The Titan’s Goblet’: A Reinterpretation.” 1971. Accessed November 1, 2016.

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