Above The Oxbow Analysis Essay

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow

Artist:
Thomas Cole (American, Lancashire 1801–1848 Catskill, New York)
Date:
1836
Medium:
Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
51 1/2 x 76 in. (130.8 x 193 cm)
Classification:
Paintings
Credit Line:
Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1908
Accession Number:
08.228

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 746

Long known as "The Oxbow," this work is a masterpiece of American landscape painting, laden with possible interpretations. In the midst of painting "The Course of Empire" (New-York Historical Society), Cole mentioned in a letter dated March 2, 1836, to his patron Luman Reed that he was executing a large version of this subject expressly for exhibition and sale. The picture was shown at the National Academy of Design in 1836 as "View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm." Cole's interest in the subject probably dates from his 1829–32 trip to Europe, during which he made an exact tracing of the view published in Basil Hall's "Forty Etchings Made with the Camera Lucida in North America in 1827 and 1828." Hall criticized Americans' inattentiveness to their scenery, and Cole responded with a landscape that lauds the uniqueness of America by encompassing "a union of the picturesque, the sublime, and the magnificent." Although often ambiguous about the subjugation of the land, here the artist juxtaposes untamed wilderness and pastoral settlement to emphasize the possibilities of the national landscape, pointing to the future prospect of the American nation. Cole's unequivocal construction and composition of the scene, charged with moral significance, is reinforced by his depiction of himself in the middle distance, perched on a promontory painting the Oxbow. He is an American producing American art, in communion with American scenery. There are both sketchbook drawings with annotations and related oil sketches of this subject. Many other artists copied or imitated the painting.

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#4344. View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow

Signature: Signed and dated at lower right on portfolio: T Cole / 1836

Charles N. Talbot, New York, by June 1838–died 1874; his estate; Mrs. Russell Sage, New York, until 1908

Shipwreck

Artist: Thomas Cole (American, Lancashire 1801–1848 Catskill, New York) Medium: Graphite on off-white wove paperAccession: 1977.182.2On view in:Not on view

The Mountain Ford

Artist: Thomas Cole (American, Lancashire 1801–1848 Catskill, New York) Date: 1846Medium: Oil on canvasAccession: 15.30.63On view in:Gallery 759

Wilderness Landscape Study

Artist: Thomas Cole (American, Lancashire 1801–1848 Catskill, New York) Date: ca. 1828–41Medium: Oil on paper laid down on boardAccession: 2014.692On view in:Gallery 759

Course of Empire: The Savage State (1834)

Artist: Thomas Cole

Artwork description & Analysis: With ambitions to transform landscape painting into a more important and celebrated genre, Cole centered his five-painting series, Course of Empire, on an allegorical cycle of historical progress. This, the first painting of the group, depicts an unspoiled wilderness at dawn. On this site, Cole depicts the rise and fall of civilization, a narrative foreshadowed by the looming storm that casts the dense forest into shadow. This gloom speaks to the demise of the unspoiled world, an ideal state represented by the hunter with bow and arrow who pursues a deer, along with an encampment of tipis and a billowing fire at the right, but it also points to the ultimate destruction of all of man's civilizing endeavors.

The Course of Empire cycle, painted between 1833 and 1836, was Cole's most ambitious project to date, moving from this first work to the The Arcadian or Pastoral State, The Consummation of Empire, Destruction, and the final painting, Desolation. The same landscape, featuring the crag in the background, is portrayed in each work to convey the contrast between enduring nature and human transience.

Despite Cole's interest in an independent American culture, the series is steeped in European influences. In its prioritizing of natural order and the smallness of man's impact on the world, Cole draws from German Romantics like Caspar David Friedrich. The structures of his grand empire are based on classical Roman architecture, popularized in 18th-century prints by artists such as Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Cole took his title from British bishop George Berkeley's "Verses on the Prospect of Planning Arts and Learning in America" (1726). He was also inspired by the Romantic poet Lord George Gordon Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818), even quoting a verse in the promotions for the series:

There is the moral of all human tales;
'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory - when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption - barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page...

With this series, Cole felt he had launched "a higher style of landscape," a historical and moralistic allegory. Indeed, Cole's reputation beyond a mere landscape painter was established: James Fenimore Cooper praised the series as not only "the work of the highest genius this country has ever produced," but "one of the noblest works of art that has ever been wrought." Although its display in New York was considered "the most successful exhibition of works of a single American artist, ever had in this city," Cole felt that his deeper message was overshadowed by praise for the pictorial qualities of the paintings. He would later simplify his symbolism for the Voyage of Life series to make it more easily understood by the general public.

Oil on canvas - New York Historical Society, New York New York

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