After 50 years of producing works that are held in the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the New York Public Libary, Thomas Cornell will retire from his post as artist-in-residence at the end of May.
Cornell draws inspiration from Freud, Marx, German anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach, British author Iris Murdoch, and Bill McKibben. The figurative, classically-arranged paintings for which Cornell is best known serve as vehicles for social commentary—they depict environmental ethics as the linchpin of social harmony.
In the catalog for his 1990 solo exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Cornell wrote that social criticism in his work "certainly enhances my motivation to make paintings that are formally provocative. Criticism deepens my commitment to the contemporary project of establishing an environmental and psychoanalytical ground for 'spiritual' values—the birth of Nature as the ground for social justice."
Phil Camill, associate professor of environmental studies, said Cornell "tries to provide a sense that nature provides a pervasive framework through which society can view ethical responsibilities to one another."
Associate Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies Larry Simon also emphasized the ethical dimension of his work.
"He sees his art as making a statement on what he conceptualizes as moral truth," Simon said. "He seeks to change public opinion about the environment and our relation to human nature."
Cornell's body of work has been praised by critics and fellow artists for the clarity of its message.
"He has consistently set an example of an artist deeply committed to their vision and not to trends in the contemporary art scene," Associate Professor of Art James Mullen wrote in an email to the Orient. "That engagement is a great part of his legacy here at Bowdoin."
Simon said that Cornell's work is not "art for art's sake" in that it explicitly addresses social concerns.
"It's not so much art about art, as so much modern art is," he said. "It's art about the public discourse of problems we face."
After graduating from Amherst College in 1959 and Yale University's School of Art and Architecture in 1960, Cornell took a two-year teaching position at the University of California, Santa Barbara, before finally arriving at Bowdoin. When the College offered the artist a faculty position in 1962, it also granted him the use of Ashby House—today the home of the religion department. To this day, he still uses the studio he set up in the back of the building.
Cornell served as the chair of the College's combined visual arts-art history program before it split in the mid-1970s, after which point he became chair of the visual arts department.
In a course he taught in the late 1970s called "Visual Perception," Cornell combined traditional visual arts instruction with group psychotherapy. He described breaking students into groups of 10 and having them discuss personal matters, like their relationships with their mothers, in hopes of having his students bring emotional integrity to bear in their art.
At the same time, Cornell wanted to teach students how to portray things as they actually appear.
He said his own landscapes and still lifes are empirical studies guided by a focus on realism.
Quoting Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, he said, "Art can show instead of just talk."
In most of Cornell's figurative paintings, mythological figures and ordinary men and women cohabit outdoor landscapes. While a few of his subjects appear to be reflecting on themselves or their environment, the majority interact with one another lovingly.
Simon said he found that Cornell's works shares its allusive character with the Neo-Classical style.
"There are certain late Renaissance, early modern painters who painted scenes not just representing nature, but using symbols which the viewer of the painting knew were meant to recall certain ideas or concepts," said Simon.
Cornell's use of lighting on his often tranquil subjects makes for a paradisical atmosphere in much of his work.
In the "Community" series of paintings that are considered Cornell's masterpieces, the artist's figures and landscape are illuminated in such a way that it seems the sun is just about to set.
In the November 30, 1979 issue of The New York Times, Hilton Kramer wrote, "Mr. Cornell's forte is a certain kind of shimmering, almost immaterial light, in which the very atmosphere is rendered as thin veils of color."
"I think of his work as symbolizing human beings relating in idyllic and edenic ways," said Simon. "By holding up a somewhat utopian vision, the idea of utopia is getting a somewhat better idea on the present and the way things should be."
Cornell's paintings depict a utopia worth striving for.
"We have to get on with a new narrative," he said. "The new genesis is a new ecology which is based on theology, which is based on anthropology."
"The Birth of Nature"—a figurative painting that Cornell is currently reworking—shows Narcissus reaching out to a child looking at his reflection in a stream of water, as if to save him from the same fate.
Camill said he felt that Cornell's work raised a question for Americans in this regard.
"How do we typically reconcile what is typically a libertarian streak of civil liberties and things that people traditionally hold valued in American society with these greater responsibilities, and how do we look out for one another and the natural world?" Camill asked.
Cornell was elected to the National Academy Museum and School in New York City in 1983. As part of the organization's current exhibit, "The Annual: 2012," Cornell's "Dependency on Nature and the Death of War" (2011) will be featured in the academy's museum on Fifth Avenue through Sunday.
After he retires in May, Cornell will continue his work with the National Academy, the Union of Maine Visual Artists, the New York Academy of Art, and Princeton University.
He plans to continue painting out of his studio in the back of Ashby House for at least five more years.Editors' note: An earlier version of this article reported that Thomas Cornell was elected to the National Academy in January when, in fact, he was elected to membership in 1983. The Orient regrets the error.