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Video transcript

we're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at Thomas Cole's view from Mount Holyoke Northampton Massachusetts after a thunderstorm the Oxbow right but we know it is the expo it's a Hudson River School painting by Thomas Cole who's credited with founding American landscape painting landscape painting was ranked very low by the academies in Europe and painting was ranked very low in American society that's true and when Americans didn't want paintings they didn't want Brant mythological scenes they wanted portraits or landscapes or views like this one and this is a view of a well-known unusual natural scene a place where the Connecticut River bends back on itself 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 or landscape painting considered this lowly genre but here made not only large in size but coal 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 a landscape to say something big but something big is hidden here - 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 well it's about America and what America is going to become 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 and as they fly through the sky and we can even make out a little bit of a lightning bolt at the extreme left 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 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 and this is so different than what coal 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 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 when looked at from above and in Reverse from God's viewpoint they seemed 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 now in art historical terms what this is is the transition from the sublime to the pastoral the pastoral being a peaceful idea of landscape of man inhabiting landscape with a sense of tranquility and peacefulness 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 fairy 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 and a pathway that goes down to some farmland and places where sheep are grazing and or I can travel up and back through the chimney stacks of a few houses here and there up through valley where the sun is shining between two hills and up to those bright clouds and the sunshine in that sense of promise there's also a wonderful specificity that I think is very much meant to entertain and to represent the particular harity of nature if you look at the left side you can see there's a fungus that's growing out of the blasted tree trunk you can just make out a bird on one of the blasted boughs but probably the most fun at the bottom center of the canvas the artist himself looking back at us and next to him just slightly up the hill is supplies his umbrella that will shelter him a portfolio a chair 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 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 entertained 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 it's not mythology no it's something that everyday Americans could relate to and really fall in love with you
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