Archive for the Art Category

Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire” (1834-36) [GUIDE]

Posted in Art, Guides, Romantic with tags , , on February 25, 2012 by Nell

The Course of Empire

 Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire (1834-36) is a series of five allegorical paintings depicting the rise and fall of a fantastical civilization.

Cole envisions a prehistoric age in which nature dominates man (The Savage State); an ancient utopia in which people live in balance with nature (The Pastoral State); an era of decadence (Consummation); war and chaos (Destruction); and finally, an uninhabited world in which the ruins of mankind are once again overtaken by nature (Desolation).


Music Inspired by Art

Nell Shaw Cohen, “The Course of Empire” (2008) Inspired by the paintings of Thomas Cole

Posted in Art, Modern, Music with tags , , , , on February 25, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire”

 Guide: Music Inspired by Art

The Course of Empire (2008) is a string quartet by Nell Shaw Cohen inspired by a cycle of five paintings by Thomas Cole (1801-1848) of the same name. Explore these topics to learn more:

  • Inspired by Art – The process of composing music inspired by paintings and how the music and paintings are connected.
  • Musical Styles – Discover connections between music history and the historical narrative of the five paintings.
  • The Mountain Motif – Explore the appearances of a musical motif representing the recurring image of a mountain cliff in Cole’s paintings.

The Course of Empire string quartet was most recently performed in conjunction with an exhibit of the paintings by members of A Far Cry at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA on July 30, 2011 as part of the Inspired by the Land festival, at the opening of the national touring exhibit Painting the American Vision. For more resources on the quartet and the Nell Shaw Cohen’s interpretation of the paintings, read The Boston Globe article on the piece, or visit the New-York Historical Society’s interview with the composer.

Look and Listen

Click the images to view a larger version of each painting. Play the audio below each image to hear a brief excerpt from that movement, or click the link to download a complete mp3 of the piece.

This performance was recorded live at the Peabody Essex Museum on July 30, 2011 by Liza Zurlinden and Ethan Wood, violin; Jason Fisher, viola; Alexei Gonzales, cello. The five movements total slightly over 14 minutes.

I. The Savage State

Download the complete movement


II. The Pastoral State

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III. Consummation

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IV. Destruction

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V. Desolation

Download the complete movement

Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School [VIDEO]

Posted in Art, Romantic, Videos with tags , on February 25, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire”

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) was an English-born American painter and founder of the Hudson River School—a group of artists in the mid-19th century known for their paintings depicting American scenery and allegorical landscapes. These artists formed an American artistic identity that was connected to, yet distinct from, the European tradition.

The Course of Empire (1834-36) is arguably Cole’s magnum opus and most well-known work. Visit The Course of Empire: Narrative and Context to get an overview of the historical and intellectual currents running through this suite of paintings, then examine each of the five paintings in detail at The Course of Empire: The Paintings.

The Hudson River Valley

Cole and his contemporaries were inspired by the Hudson River Valley region and the scenery they found in the Catskill Mountains; an area that was popular amongst tourists in New York for hiking and sightseeing. Paintings of scenery in this region form a large part of the output of the Hudson River School.

Learn More:

Please note that the below links will take you outside of this website.

  • The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision, by Linda S. Ferber (interviewed in the above videos). A survey of the artists of the Hudson River School, including Cole, and with a focus on the works in the outstanding collection of the New-York Historical Society.
  • Explore Thomas Cole. An online gallery with interactive curated guides to Cole’s paintings, including The Course of Empire.
  • The Thomas Cole National Historic Site. A guide to visiting Thomas Cole’s former home in Catskill, NY, and sites in the area of interest to the Hudson River School painters.

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The Course of Empire: Narrative and Context [VIDEO]

Posted in Art, Romantic, Videos with tags , , on February 25, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire”

Scroll below to explore the larger contexts behind Cole’s artistry and the story in The Course of Empire, then examine each of the five paintings in detail.

The Landscape

Thomas Cole is considered one of the first great American landscape painters, and these five paintings are a virtuosic display. His work was strongly influenced by the Romantic ideal of the Sublime wilderness, as well as older European painters such as Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin.

Landscape and its artistic representation was important for America’s national identity in the 19th century, and the fate of the wilderness had spiritual and political resonance for Cole and like-minded artists and intellectuals.

The Story

The five paintings are set in the same place during progressive times of day, each with different moods and weather conditions (the first painting depicts a tumultous cloudscape at dawn; the final painting is tranquil twilight). Cole imbues each view of this landscape with its own emotional state.

Cole’s imaginary civilization looks and acts like an ancient Greek or Roman society, from the wise philosopher sketching geometric diagrams in the dirt in The Pastoral State to the monumental statue of a discus-throwing gladiator in Destruction.

The Allegory

There is the moral of all human tales;
‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory – when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption – barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page…

Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818)

Empire depicts the complete life cycle of a civilization. In this, Cole was influenced by cyclical theories of history well known to intellectuals in Cole’s time, as well as global and national current events.

The generic Classical setting of Cole’s story lends it a sense of timelessness. The paintings are a universal parable that can be applied to any civilization, and it was seen in the light of current events and trends in Cole’s own time. It can be understood just as easily, and be as powerful, today.


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The Course of Empire: The Paintings [VIDEO]

Posted in Art, Romantic, Videos with tags , , on February 25, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire”

Linda S. Ferber, Vice President and Senior Art Historian at the New-York Historical Society, acts as a guide through Cole’s suite of five paintings in the videos below.

The Savage State (1834)

The Pastoral State (1834)

The Consummation of Empire (1836)

The Destruction of Empire(1836)

Desolation (1836)

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Nell Shaw Cohen, Revealed in Stone (2009) Inspired by the Poetry and Art of Michelangelo

Posted in Art, Literature, Music with tags , , , , on February 12, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Music Inspired by Art

>Listen to the complete song cycle on this website

Michelangelo’s Poetry in Translation

The poems were composed in strict meter and rhyme, and while some English translations recreate this (notably those by Sidney Alexander) I was attracted to the more prose-like translations of James M. Saslow based on their clarity of meaning and dramatic pacing. However, as I began work on the music, I found that Saslow’s word choice and syntax did not always work ideally with music—with the exception of the first selection in this cycle, which I found to fit perfectly and have used without alteration. For the other poems, I adapted the text into my own words, consulting Saslow and Alexander, and occasionally the original Italian (which I can’t read, but felt through with a dictionary and some guesswork!).

While I took a great deal of stylistic liberty with the language and poetic meter, I strove always to retain the essential meaning of the poems and to deliver Michelangelo’s metaphors intact. More often than not I have liberally truncated his complex, interweaving syntax into concise phrases that can be more easily understood in real-time performance. I hope that I have been able to adapt Michelangelo’s ideas into a form that might illuminate them in a new and meaningful way for the audience.

Comparing the Texts

To give a sense of how similar (or dissimilar) the poems in this cycle are to the originals, here are excerpts from Michelangelo’s original Italian poems, English translations by a published scholar, and my own adaptations.

In this first excerpt, I makes the four lines of this stanza rhyme rhythmically (although the words do not), which allows for a “song-like” setting.

Michelangelo’s Original

Passo inanzi a me stesso
con alto e buon concetto,
e ‘l tempo gli prometto
c’aver non deggio.

Excerpt, poem 144 [Girardi numbering]

Translation by James M. Saslow

From The Poetry of Michelangelo, An Annotated Translation. Yale University Press, 1991.

I get ahead of myself
with a lofty and fine conception,
and promise it the time
that I’m not to have.

Nell Shaw Cohen’s adaptation (“The Years I Cannot Know“)

I plan for the time that I will not have
to realize a lofty goal.
I promise myself completion
in the years I cannot know.

In this next example, I took only the essential meaning behind the poem and dramatically altered the rhythm of the text in order to suit my purposes in setting the words to music.

Michelangelo’s Original

S’egli è che ‘n dura pietra alcun somigli
talor l’immagin d’ogni altri a se stesso,
squalido e smorto spresso,
il fo, com’ i’ son fattoda costei.
E par ch’esempro pigli
ognor da me, chi’ i’ penso di far lei.

Excerpt, poem 242 [Girardi numbering]

Translation by James M. Saslow
From The Poetry of Michelangelo, An Annotated Translation. Yale University Press, 1991.

Since it’s true that, in hard stone, one will at times
make the image of someone else look like himself,
I often make her dreary
and ashen, just as I’m made by this woman;
and I seem to keep taking myself
as a model, whenever I think of depicting her.

Nell Shaw Cohen’s adaptation (“I Become the Model“)

Sometimes one will make
the image of someone else
look like the image of himself.
So, I make her gloomy just as she makes me.
I become the model whenever I model her.


In the following example, I stayed much closer to Saslow’s language, choosing to collapse some of the poetic syntax into simpler phrases.

Michelangelo’s Original

sì che mill’ anni dopo la partita,
quante voi bella fusti e quant’ io lasso
si veggia, e com’ armarvi i’ non fu’ stolto.

Excerpt, poem 239 [Girardi numbering]

Translation by James M. Saslow
Excerpted from The Poetry of Michelangelo, An Annotated Translation. Yale University Press, 1991.

so that a thousand years after our departure
may be seen how lovely you were, and how wretched I,

and how, in loving you, I was no fool.

Nell Shaw Cohen’s adaptation (“A Thousand Years After We Are Gone”)

so that a thousand years after we are gone
all can see how lovely you were,

and how pathetic I was,
and that I was no fool in loving you.


>Listen to the complete song cycle on this website

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An Introduction to Michelangelo’s Poetry

Posted in Art, Literature, Renaissance with tags , on February 12, 2012 by Nell

Although Michelangelo’s poetry is not nearly as well known to the public as his sculpture, painting and architecture, it was an important facet of his creative life and appears to have been a passionate and somewhat private secondary form of expression for the artist (he was unpublished during his lifetime, and many of the poems were gifts to friends). Michelangelo worked in the tradition of Italian lyric poetry as defined by Petrarch and Dante. Echoing Petrarch’s Laura and Dante’s Beatrice, Michelangelo often addresses a woman–who may be imagined as the poetic representation of Vittoria Colonna, with whom he had an intense friendship (now considered by scholars not to have been truly romantic).

Michelangelo wrote over three hundred poems, many of which utilized imagery or metaphors from his primary medium of marble sculpture. Fragments of verse can be found in Michelangelo’s sketchbooks, scribbled on the same pages as studies for his masterpieces, showing that these two disparate art forms were complementary or intimately related in his mind.


The poems I selected for my musical interpretation of Michelangelo’s poetry and art, Revealed in Stone (2009) for tenor and piano, center around a few of the most prevalent and intriguing themes in Michelangelo’s repertoire: time, death, and the immortalizing power of art; the artist’s concetto (conception or idea) and the perfection of its realization; the reflection of the artist’s self in his creations; the tension between hiding and revealing, which relates to the subtractive process of marble sculpture; and a yearning for spiritual release, or elevation, from the human condition.

He alludes directly to this idea with a metaphor for sculpture as the earthly confinement of an enigmatic spirit (“I came down, against my will, from a great ravine / in the high mountains to this lower place, / to be revealed within this little stone.”).



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Michelangelo’s Non-finito Sculptures

Posted in Art, Renaissance with tags on February 12, 2012 by Nell

While Michelangelo is best known for masterpieces such as his David and Pieta, among the most compelling products of Michelangelo’s sculptural output, and those which most strongly symbolize the Neo-Platonic theme of the struggle to transcend physical form (alluded to in the poems), are the non-finito (unfinished) sculptures – particularly St. Matthew and the Slaves (works that were a major influence on Auguste Rodin).

These are vague, faceless figures that appear to be struggling to emerge from masses of marble. It is debated whether or not Michelangelo left them intentionally unfinished, but either way these are striking examples of the outstanding characteristics of Michelangelo’s art: dynamic, overwhelming strength veiled in melancholic beauty. This was the vision I had in mind as I searched for the mood and language of my music in Revealed in Stone.

Michelangelo, Young Slave

Young Slave

Michelangelo, Awakening Slave

Awakening Slave

Michelangelo, St. Matthew

St. Matthew

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Nell Shaw Cohen, To Create One’s Own World (2009) Inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe

Posted in Art, Modern, Music with tags , , , on February 12, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Music Inspired by Art

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is among the most noted American painters of the 20th century. She is well known for her abstracted images of flowers and her images of the New Mexico southwest scenery, which she loved and thrived in for the latter half of her life.

Born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, O’Keeffe first found success in New York City with the support of photographer, gallery owner, pioneering advocate of Modernism, and future husband, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). O’Keeffe discovered the beauty of the New Mexico landscape in 1929, and would splither time between the southwest and New York. After Stieglitz’s death, O’Keeffe moved full-time to her studio homes in Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch.

To Create One’s Own World

I’ve composed several works inspired by the life and art of Georgia O’Keeffe, including To Create One’s Own World (2009) for soprano, flute, bass clarinet, and marimba.

Listen to an excerpt from the song:

Download the complete song

The text for this song combines a selection of short quotations from Georgia O’Keeffe’s writings, letters, and interviews, which I arranged. These excerpts are a brief but vivid articulation of O’Keeffe’s philosophy: a passionate commitment to self-expression, individualism, and creativity. In the song, the singer becomes O’Keeffe, and the mixed chamber trio of flute, bass clarinet, and marimba act as musical echoes and extensions of her sentiments.

Georgia O'KeeffeTo create one’s own world, in any of the arts, takes courage.

Making your unknown known is the important thing.

I don’t see why we ever think of what others think of what we do — no matter who they are. Isn’t it enough just to express yourself?

I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life — and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.

The days you work are the best days.

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The Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe and the New Mexico Landscape [VIDEO]

Posted in Art, Modern, Music, Videos with tags , , , on February 12, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Music Inspired by Art

I believe that painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) achieved an important artistic ideal: to create new meanings, previously unrealized connections, and heightened ways of perceiving the world and filtering experience. I seek to do the same with my music video piece, The Faraway Nearby: to offer new insight and new ways of experiencing the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe and her source material—to bring you into her world as I imagine it.

The Faraway Nearby is about seeing. When I look at O’Keeffe’s paintings of New Mexico, I am reminded of that remarkable landscape in a way that feels almost more immediate and more meaningful than the reality. I see the abstract shapes, colors, and compositional ideas that informed her interpretation of the visual world around her. I see the relationship to place that was immensely important to her, which she forged while hiking for endless hours through desert badlands. This piece is my attempt to create an immersive visual and musical experience that captures these qualities.

The video and music are closely coordinated in phrasing, development, and mood, and the structure of the music dictated my visual choices and pacing, both on a moment-to-moment basis and in larger formal concerns. Repetitions of the primary thematic section (heard at the beginning, middle and end of the piece) coincide with the image of Pedernal, “her mountain”. Pedernal is seemingly ever-present in the video, much as it looms on the horizon at Ghost Ranch. Here it represents O’Keeffe’s lasting presence, and her sense of spiritual ownership of the land. The musical atmosphere suggested to me by O’Keeffe’s visual world is a personal intuitive response which, I hope, speaks for itself.

The score to this multimedia video piece, inspired by the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, was composed prior to the conception of this video as part of a three-movement work for chamber quintet, Into nowhere (2010). I filmed on location in New Mexico in June 2010, and edited the video over the summer, adding animations and collaging visual elements evoking O’Keeffe’s aesthetic inspirations. The video received its premiere screening, with a live ensemble performing the music, in November 2010. Beyond the Notes: Music Inspired by Art will be the second time the piece has been screened in public, and I am seeking additional screenings (with live performances or pre-recorded score) and gallery installations for this piece.

Production of The Faraway Nearby was funded in part by an Entrepreneurial Grant from New England Conservatory’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department.

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