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Wilderness, settlement, and American identity

Thomas Cole's painting, "The Hunter's Return," showcases a beautiful American landscape, symbolizing untouched nature. The painting reflects Cole's environmentalist concerns about the disappearing wilderness due to industrialization. The artwork is a mix of Cole's experiences and inspirations from European artists. The painting also hints at the concept of Manifest Destiny. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(delightful music) - [Guide] We're in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art looking at a large landscape painting by Thomas Cole called, The Hunter's Return, and we can see the hunter returning from his hunt, walking toward this lovely sunlit cottage. - [Art Guide] This cottage is the home to a very settled family. You can see that from the vegetable garden, the dogs that are trying to sneak a little bit of food. - I love the child playing with the dog in the foreground too. There's a real sense of domestic happiness here. - Right, unless you've settled the land, it's unusual to see multiple generations, including an infant, so this represents a family that has put down roots. - But we are surrounded by the wilderness, the wilderness that Cole so loved about the American landscape. - I like to talk about Cole as the first real environmentalist artist. In the 19th century, it was common to go abroad to Europe, and Cole's best friend was the poet William Cullen Bryant, and he said, when you go to Europe you're going to see everywhere, the trace of man. Everywhere human civilization, in the form of buildings and ruins, and what he said was unique about American culture was untouched nature, so he encouraged Cole, when he went abroad, to keep that earlier, wilder image bright, of the American wilderness. - Now, of course, Native Americans were here, and this wasn't this untouched landscape. - Absolutely, but how do you make a distinctive mark as an American artist, for an American audience, you do it by recording the places that they may not have the luxury of experiencing from their city homes. - He's got everything here that you would want in the landscape. He's got this fabulous sky, these lovely touches of clouds, this mountain range that is turning purplish, as the sun sets behind it. A lake in the middle ground, what looks like a little waterfall. These lovely autumn trees framing this cottage that's drenched in sunlight. One's eye travels through this in real enjoyment, and pleasure. - Though he's showing this wilderness, we know by the 1840's when he's painting this, this is a nostalgic view, because, in fact, the railroad is developing. Tanneries have populated the East Coast, and the lumber merchants are deforesting the landscape. - This was something that Cole returned to again and again. This idea that, by necessity, the United States had to transform nature and make it useful, and build things like the Erie Canal, that enabled the trade between the Northeast and the Midwest. So this inevitable economic development, that he feared and worried about, and longed for America, I think, to stay very much the way he pictures it in this landscape, but even here, we have the sense of what's to come. - It's a conflicted painting, because in the foreground you see the results, in exaggerated form, of these giant trees that have been felled for the march of civilization. In fact, it was the very year that this was painted, 1845, that the term Manifest Destiny is coined. - Many of the landscape painters were seeking new frontiers to continue that idea of uncultivated lands, and that was becoming more and more difficult on the East Coast, because there were very few lands that were uncultivated. So there was this desire, and encouragement, for people to move westward, and that's the idea of Manifest Destiny. - So we might, at first, think that this is a painting of a specific scene. - A lot of the landscapes are an amalgam of many, many different trips into the out of doors, and the memories those artists had of those specific locations. Cole himself lived in the Hudson River Valley, in the Catskills, so you might look at the autumn foliage as looking like something that Cole would see from his house, but it's really a patchwork quilt of his experiences and other artworks. Including those of European artists, like Claude Lorrain, and works that he would have seen in engravings. People often ask me, how do you know that Cole was an environmentalist? Is that just something that you are basing on evidence that's in the picture's itself? In fact, in 1836, he wrote an essay for the American monthly magazine, called, 'Essay on American Scenery', about America as an Eden, and his concerns that the wilderness would be disappearing. - He wrote, I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away. The ravages of the axe are daily increasing. The most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation. This is a regret rather than a complaint; such is the road society has to travel. - Then he says, there are those who regret that with the improvements of cultivation the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away. We use the word sublime, in a holy, positive way now. We block the association that it had, that there was both beauty and danger involved in the landscape. - There is this idea in the early years of the 19th century, of God's presence in nature. - The religious sentiment associated with the landscape was very much part of Cole's vocabulary. - So you can imagine too, with this idea of seeing God's handy work in nature, that this transformation of the United States into an industrial culture would arouse anxiety. - It's very much in evidence the 'Essay on American Scenery' as this experience of God through natural works, and the dangers of disrupting that. (pleasant music)