American painter Thomas Cole is best known for his detailed depictions of the American countryside, depicted in accordance with the tenets of Romanticism and Naturalism. As a founder of the Hudson River School, Cole was instrumental in this development and depiction of the American landscape.
However, not all landscapes depicted by Cole were based on actual existing locations. Indeed, while even his depictions of existing landscapes often exhibited idealistic interpretations of nature, some of his most famous paintings were not based on actual landscapes at all. Among these works, we find the aptly named “The Titan’s Goblet”. This masterpiece was painted by Thomas Cole in 1833 and its deeper meaning has been open to interpretation ever since. It was painted on a fairly small canvas which contrasts nicely to the immensity of the subject, and was done using a very thin layer of paint, maybe because Cole painted this subject for himself rather than for any specific sponsor. However, its humble beginnings none withstanding, it was a masterful execution of a mind boggling subject: An immense mountain landscape amid which rests an immense goblet. The Goblet is filled with water and along its shores people are living, while they spend their days sailing on the waters of the goblet itself. From the sides of the goblet, some water falls to the landscape below and where it lands, life emerges.
The interpretations of such an immense work have obviously been many and varied. Cole himself did not provide any text on the subject, which only heightens the speculation on the real meaning of the painting. Some early speculation focused on the similarity of the goblet to a tree and went to compare it to Yggdrasil of the Norse Methodology, though this interpretation was later abandoned as it was very unlikely that Cole had even heard of the Norse Gods and their detailed mythology.
Another more inviting interpretation, supported by the name of the painting itself, lends the inspiration to the realm of the Greek gods. With the titans of that Mythology being gigantic beings that did craft giant stone objects, this interpretation lends itself more easily. That the titans were themselves also givers of life can be seen as reflected in the life giving characteristics of the goblet in the painting. The presence of both a Greek temple and an Italian palace on the banks of the goblet also further lends credibility to such a Mediterranean interpretation.
However, Louis Legrand Noble who was both a friend and biographer of Cole did not mention any such Mythological connection – and we could rightly have expected him to know. Rather, 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.”
So in his interpretation, we are rather looking at a utopic fairy land where romantic fantasies can come to life. In other words it is a world of dreams, set above the lands of normal mortals. It is the illustration of a dream. In such an interpretation, the title itself only refers to the size of the goblet, and the painting to a romantic idea. As Cole’s paintings were highly influenced by Romanticism, this is definitely another possibility.
In recognition of the unique nature of The Titan’s goblet, it was the only pre-20th century painting included in the New York Museum of Modern Arts 1936 “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition. The painting can today be found on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York.