AP®︎/College Art History
- Cabrera, Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
- Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery
- Fragonard, The Swing
- Thomas Jefferson, Monticello
- David, Oath of the Horatii
- David, Oath of the Horatii
- Jean-Antoine Houdon, George Washington
- Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait
- Goya, And there's nothing to be done (from the Disasters of War)
- Painting colonial culture: Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque
- Ingres, La Grande Odalisque
- Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People
- Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People
- Thomas Cole, The Oxbow
- Thomas Cole, The Oxbow
- Early Photography: Niépce, Talbot and Muybridge
- Turner, Slave Ship
- Charles Barry and A.W.N. Pugin, Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament)
Thomas Cole, The Oxbow
An American painter born in England
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836, oil on canvas, 130.8 x 193 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
During the nineteenth century—an expanse of time that saw the elevation of landscape painting to a point of national pride—Thomas Cole reigned supreme as the undisputed leader of the Hudson River School of landscape painters (not an actual school, but a group of New York city-based landscape painters). It is ironic, however, that the person who most embodies the beauty and grandeur of the American wilderness during the first half of the nineteenth century was not originally from the United States, but was instead born and lived the first seventeen years of his life in Great Britain. Originally from Bolton-le-Moor in Lancashire (England), the Cole family immigrated to the United States in 1818, first settling in Philadelphia before eventually moving to Steubenville, Ohio, a locale then on the edge of wilderness of the American west.
Cole worked briefly in Ohio as an itinerant portraitist, but returned to Philadelphia in 1823 at the age of 22 to pursue art instruction that was then unavailable in Ohio. Two years later, Cole moved to New York City where he exchanged his aspirations of painting large-scale historical compositions for the more reasonable artistic goal of completing landscapes. For instruction, Cole turned to a book, William Oram’s Precepts and Observations on the Art of Colouring in Landscaping (1810), an instructional text that had a profound effect on Cole for the remainder of his artistic career.
William Oram, Precepts and observations on the art of colouring in landscape painting (Charles Clarke, 1810)
An important ally and an influential patron
Cole found quick success in New York City. In the year of his arrival, 1825, John Trumbull, the patriarch of American portraiture and history painting, and the president of the American Academy of Design "discovered" Cole, and the older artist made it an immediate goal to promote the talented landscape painter. In the months to follow, Trumbull introduced Cole to many of the wealthy and prominent men who would become his most influential patrons in the decades to follow. One such man was Luman Reed, an affluent merchant who, in 1836, commissioned Cole to paint the five-canvas series The Course of Empire.
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1833-36, oil on canvas, 39 ½ × 63 ½ inches (The New-York Historical Society)
Landscapes imbued with a moral message
It is in this series—and in many of the paintings to follow—that Thomas Cole found the aesthetic voice to lift the genre of landscape painting to a level that approached history painting. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, great artists aspired to complete large-scale historical compositions, paintings that often had an instructive moral message. Landscape paintings, in contrast, were often though more imitative than innovative. But in The Course of Empire, Cole was able to take the American landscape and imbue it with a moral message, as was often found in history paintings. Indeed, the landscapes Cole began to paint in the 1830s were not entirely about the land. In these works, Cole used the land as a way to say something important about the United States.
The Oxbow: More than a bend in the Connecticut River
A wonderful illustration of this is Cole’s 1836 masterwork, A View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, a painting that is generally (and mercifully) known as The Oxbow. At first glance this painting may seem to be nothing more than an interesting view of a recognizable bend in the Connecticut River. But when viewed through the lens of nineteenth-century political ideology, this painting eloquently speaks about the widely discussed topic of westward expansion.
Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836, oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 76 inches / 130.8 x 193 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
When looking at The Oxbow, the viewer can clearly see that Cole used a diagonal line from the lower right to the upper left to divide the composition into two unequal halves. The left-hand side of the painting depicts a sublime view of the land, a perspective that elicits feelings of danger and even fear. This is enhanced by the gloomy storm clouds that seem to pummel the not-too-distant middle ground with rain. This part of the painting depicts a virginal landscape, nature created by God and untouched by man. It is wild, unruly, and untamed.
Blasted Tree (detail), Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836, oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 76 inches / 130.8 x 193 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Within the construction of American landscape painting, American artists often visually represented the notion of the untamed wilderness through the "Blasted Tree, a motif Cole paints into the lower left corner. That such a formidable tree could be obliterated in such a way suggests the herculean power of Nature.
Pastoral landscape (detail), Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836, oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 76 inches / 130.8 x 193 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
If the left side of this painting is sublime in tenor, on the right side of the composition we can observe a peaceful, pastoral landscape that humankind has subjugated to their will. The land, which was once as disorderly as that on the left side of the painting, has now been overtaken by the order and regulation of agriculture. Animals graze. Crops grow. Smoke billows from chimneys. Boats sail upon the river. What was once wild has been tamed. The thunderstorm, which threatens the left side of the painting, has left the land on the right refreshed and no worse for the wear. The sun shines brightly, filling the right side of the painting with the golden glow of a fresh afternoon.
When viewed together, the right side of the painting—the view to the east—and that of the left—the west—clearly speak to the ideology of Manifest Destiny. During the nineteenth century, discussions of westward expansion dominated political discourse. The Louisiana Purchase of 1804 essentially doubled the size of the United States, and many believed that it was a divinely ordained obligation of Americans to settle this westward territory. In The Oxbow, Cole visually shows the benefits of this process. The land to the east is ordered, productive, and useful. In contrast, the land to the west remains unbridled. Further westward expansion—a change that is destined to happen—is shown to positively alter the land.
Self-Portrait (detail), Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836, oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 76 inches / 130.8 x 193 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Although Cole was the most influential landscape artist of the first half of the nineteenth century, he was not completely adverse to figure painting. Indeed, a close look at The Oxbow, reveals an easily overlooked self-portrait in the lower part of the painting. Cole wears a coat and hat and stands before a stretched canvas placed on an easel, paintbrush in hand. The artist pauses, as if in the middle of the brushstroke, to engage the viewer. This work, then, in a kind of "artist in his studio" self-portrait—is akin, in many ways, to Charles Willson Peale’s 1822 work The Artist in His Museum. In each, the artist depicts himself in his own setting. For Peale, this was his natural history museum in Philadelphia. For Cole, this was the nature he is most well known for painting.
Charles Wilson Peale, The Artist in His Museum, 1822, oil on canvas, 263.5 x 202.9 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Frederic Edwin Church, Heart of the Andes, 1859, oil on canvas, 168 x 302.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Although he only formally accepted one pupil for instruction—this was, of course, Frederic Edwin Church—Thomas Cole exerted a powerful influence on the course of landscape painting in the United States during the nineteenth century. Not content to merely paint the land, Cole elevated the landscape genre to approach the status of historical painting. The landscape painters who followed during the middle of the nineteenth century—Church, Durand, Bierstadt, and others—would often follow the trail that Cole had blazed.
Essay by Dr. Bryan Zygmont
Want to join the conversation?
- What is "pait" or "figure pait"? It is mentioned in the tenth paragraph: "he was not completely adverse to figure pait".(3 votes)
- I think it's just a typo. I bet that the author was saying that "he was not completely adverse to figure painting." (I'm guessing, of course, but that would make sense in this context.)(3 votes)
- Understand that from a European perspective that had just experienced the horrors of the industrial revolution with its attendant slums and pollution, Cole's view of America as a new Eden may be warning America not to make the mistakes made by my country and to preserve some of this natural landscape.(4 votes)
- Why is Cole considered to be American when American painters who painted in England are not considered to be English?(3 votes)
- A lot has to do, I think, with assimilation--or the adopted country's resistance to it. Especially in this period, most Americans were only a generation or two off the boat. As a young man who reached America just before adulthood, Cole spent the last of his formative years and the rest of his life (d. 1848) in this country. Contrast that with British society, where bloodlines go back many generations, even centuries. A transplanted American could be a "newcomer" all his life. (In America, Northerners transplanted to the South can also experience the lack of assimilation today, where small towns trace lineages to the antebellum years.) It was much easier to become "naturalized" in America back then., and we were still coalescing into a national viewpoint---witness Cole's lasting influence in his medium. It would be much harder for an American to have that sort of influence in a more "established" foreign milieu.(3 votes)
- were americans proud of this untouched landscape(3 votes)
- Many certainly believed that it showed a kind of divine favor.(3 votes)
- What prompted the popularity of landscape paintings and was Cole the first one to begin this movement?(2 votes)
- According to this article, Cole elevated the landscape genre to approach the status of historical painting by imbuing moral messages in the paintings. The landscape painters who followed during the middle of the nineteenth century—Church, Durant, Bierstadt, and others—would often follow the trail that Cole had blazed.(2 votes)
- Are there other paintings that utilize the symbol of a "Blasted Tree" or was this a symbol Cole invented?(2 votes)
- Here's a great article about the many uses of trees in art. https://hyperallergic.com/131541/the-romantic-symbolism-of-trees/(2 votes)
- If Cole was an American painter, why would the words inscribed onto the painting be Hebrew?(1 vote)
- There are also English and Spanish words used in America. Languages travel and are used for many reasons. Here because of their Biblical connotation.(3 votes)
- Why did artist tend to move away from portrait paintings and towards landscape paintings at this time?(2 votes)
- Landscapes sit still. People posing for portraits fidget.(1 vote)
- why did landscape painting become more significant during this time(2 votes)
- Could you guys fix this sentence and place a space after the comma and before the "A View from" in this sentence in the essay. Thank you!
A wonderful illustration of this is Cole’s 1836 masterwork,A View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, a painting that is generally (and mercifully) known as The Oxbow.(1 vote)
- You'll get a better response to this request if you put it under the "tips and thanks" tab than under the questions tab. I discovered that from experience a couple of years ago.(2 votes)