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Video transcript

[piano music playing] (Dr. Steven Zucker) We're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at Thomas Cole's "View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm-- The Oxbow." (Dr. Beth Harris) Right. But we know it as "The Oxbow." (Dr. Zucker) It's a Hudson River School painting by Thomas Cole who's credited with founding American landscape painting. (Dr. Harris) Landscape painting was ranked very low by the academies in Europe. (Dr. Zucker) And painting was ranked very low in American society. [Dr. Harris laughing] That's true. And when Americans did want paintings, they didn't want grand, mythological scenes. They wanted portraits or landscapes or views like this one. (Dr. Zucker) And this is a view of a well-known, unusual, natural scene, a place where the Connecticut River bends back on itself. (Dr. Harris) This is a really large painting. I think it's five or six feet wide and five feet high. And that speaks to the importance that Thomas Cole wanted to give to landscape painting, landscape painting, considered this lowly genre, but here made not only large in size but Cole, even here in this view, trying to say something more with landscape. When we think of Thomas Cole, we think of "The Course of Empire," or "The Voyage of Life", these moments when he tries to use landscape to say something big, but something big is hidden here, too. (Dr. Zucker) This is really ambitious. And it's not just landscape. It's about transformation. It's about time. It's about a kind of metamorphosis. (Dr. Harris) Well, it's about America, and what America is going to become. (Dr. Zucker) So on the left side, we see a storm-ravaged landscape. We see a broken tree. We see rain pouring down, birds that seem to be frantic as they fly through the sky, and we can even make out a little bit of a lightning bolt at the extreme left. (Dr. Harris) So we have what art historians and art critics at the time even referred to as "the sublime," an image of nature that is wild and untamed and frightening and awesome. (Dr. Zucker) This untouched wilderness, this virgin forest, was seen in stark contrast to the built environment of old Europe, and so here was a promise of the new. It was America as a new Eden. (Dr. Harris) And this is so different than what Cole gives us on the other side, which is Americans settling this virgin landscape, transforming it into cultivated plots of land, into areas to graze their livestock, into places to settle and build homes. And the storm is passing. The sun is coming. And there's a sense that this settling of the land is something which is ordained by God which is approved by God. (Dr. Zucker) And this is really tied in with the American notion of manifest destiny, that Americans were meant to tame this landscape, that this was ours. And in fact, at least one art historian has looked at the hill in the center of the painting and read in that Hebrew letters. (Dr. Harris) When looked at from above, and in reverse, from God's viewpoint, they seem to read from the Hebrew, the word "Shaddai," which means "almighty", referring to God. So that idea that this is God's plan, and God has blessed America. (Dr. Zucker) Now in art historical terms what this is, is the transition from the sublime to the pastoral. (Dr. Harris) The pastoral being a peaceful idea of landscape, of man inhabiting landscape with a sense of tranquility and peacefulness. (Dr. Zucker) And we can see that in all of these anecdotal vignettes that Cole gives us. If you look at the lower right corner of the painting, for instance, you can see a ferry that's been carefully rendered. You can see people that have been let off at one side, and people who are now crossing over to the other. (Dr. Harris) And a pathway that goes down to some farmland, and places where sheep are grazing, and our eye can travel up and back through the chimney stacks of a few houses here and there, up through a valley where the sun is shining between two hills, and up those bright clouds and the sunshine, and that sense of promise. (Dr. Zucker) There's also a wonderful specificity that I think is very much meant to entertain and to represent the particularity of nature. If you look at the left side, you can see there's fungus that's growing out of the blasted tree trunk. You can just make out a bird on one of the blasted bows, but probably the most fun is at the bottom center of the canvas, the artist himself looking back at us. (Dr. Harris) And next to him, just slightly up the hill, is his supplies, his umbrella that will shelter him, a portfolio, a chair. (Dr. Zucker) But that chair is also a cross. And so we understand not only the passage of time here, the transition from wilderness to a paradise that man is creating, but we also understand this all within a Christian context. (Dr. Harris) His portfolio which has his name on it reads as the signature of this painting, also reads as a tombstone for the artist. So there is that sense of the passage of time. But I want to go back to a word that you used a moment ago, and that was "entertain", because here we are, first half of the 19th century, there's a middle class audience. and a new rising merchant class from which Cole is drawing his patrons, but there is this real need to entertain, to exhibit these paintings and make them fun for people to look at. This is not complicated -- (Dr. Zucker) It's not mythology. (Dr. Harris) No. It's something that everyday Americans could relate to and really fall in love with. [piano music]