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America's Great Paintings: 'The Oxbow' by Thomas Cole (1836)

By Edited Sep 20, 2015 0 0

In 1845, the newspaper editor John L Sullivan coined the term ‘manifest destiny’ to describe the patriotic desire felt by many (but by no means all) Americans to civilize and cultivate the American land as the fledgling nation swept outwards from New England, to connect with its outposts along the western seaboard. This desire to turn colonialism into a kind of imperialism stemmed from a religious fervor, growing since the 1820s, that the work of God could be the found in the magnificent landscape of the new continent, and the work of the American people was to develop and populate the wilderness beyond the established towns and cities.

Thomas Cole
This scenery found its most influential and ardent admirers among the artists of the time. In a way, they were fortunate pioneers, for as Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848) himself put it, they had “privileges superior to any others. All nature here is new to art.” Portraiture provided the bread-and-butter for most American painters of the time, though some, like Cole, were turning towards the vast, untapped resources of the American landscape as a source of inspiration. And in a time and place where, odd it may seem to us, historical and biblical scenes were unpopular, the mountains, rivers, lakes and forests of America, unrecorded and unexplored, provided a setting to celebrate divine creation.

The artists who depicted such scenes became known as the Hudson River School, after one of the locations popularized by their work, and the best known of a group which included Asher B Durand, Thomas Doughty, Frederick Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt, also painted one of its best works; the painter’s name, Thomas Cole, the painting, The Oxbow (1836).

An immigrant, whose family came to America from England in 1818, Cole soon fell in love with the landscape of his adopted nation. After attending the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1820s, Cole undertook that great artistic rite of passage, the Grand Tour of Europe, between 1829 and 1832, funded no doubt by the success he found in New York, where his work was bought and admired by fellow artists. Returning home, Cole undertook many field trips in the Hudson Valley and eventually settled there, in the town of Catskill, in 1836. During that year, Cole worked on a series of paintings called The Course of Empire, commissioned by his leading patron, the merchant and philanthropist Luman Reed. A great lover of art, Reed wished to help develop a collective body of American artwork, and so promoting both national painters and the nation itself.

Cole, never the most comfortable of figure drawers, grew despondent with the sheer scope of the task. Reed advised Cole to take a rest from the commission by painting one of the landscapes he knew the artist loved. Cole searched among his sketches and found those he’d worked on during a field trip to Mount Holyoke, near the town of Hadley, Massachusetts. The view was well-known, even by 1836, and had already been the subject of a celebrated painting by William Henry Bartlett, but Cole painted into his work the spirit of the age, and turned a view of the Connecticut River into a work dwelling on the nature of man’s relationship with God, and the connection between Americans and the land upon which he lived.

In the painting, a storm has passed, dividing the canvas roughly in two through a curving motion down the middle. To the left, we see the wrecked trees left by the storm, with the foremost tree straggling upwards towards the corner, where the sky is at its darkest and the storm still in progress. The right-hand half of the picture shows a calmer scene, with pastures and farmland feeling the light and warmth of the sunshine’s return. In the center, the Oxbow, the river leading us in from the bottom right, wrapping itself around the near-island and the ‘heart’ of the picture, disappearing beyond our sight behind the mountainside. A wonderful view, but there is more going on here, and it is not what we might expect from Cole.

That Cole intends God’s presence in the picture is beyond doubt, but the question is not whether we should perceive a divine presence, but how we should perceive it. Much critical debate focuses on the hill in the distant background of The Oxbow, where the viewer can make out white markings which to an untrained eye may seem as exposed chalk, but are more likely the work of tree-loggers. The markings resemble the Hebrew word for ‘Noah,’ perhaps reminding us of the ark builder’s contract with the Almighty; indeed, when viewed from above, upside-down to the viewer, the markings look more like the Hebrew word for Almighty, ‘Shaddai.’

Coincidence? Possibly. It is unlikely that Cole knew the Hebrew language, but the story fits in

Mount Holyoke
well with his ambiguous intentions for the picture, which both balances harmony and depicts conflict. The ‘island’ for example, has attracted comment as representing God’s all-seeing eye, simultaneously looking down on (as the viewer does), and a central part of, the landscape. However, an Oxbow river must one day become an Oxbow lake, a fate which befell this part of the Connecticut River when flooding overtook the region only four years after Cole completed the painting. Therefore, we can look upon Cole’s use of the oxbow as a warning against the depletion of man’s covenant with God, which will one day isolate the role of our Creator in our lives, leaving us cut adrift from the proper spiritual flow of life.

One of Cole’s concerns was of America’s increasing materialism, and a society preferring the modern comforts and pleasures of the city to the untamed, yet innocent, wilderness of America, where God’s presence lived uncontaminated by the worldly concerns of man. The Oxbow shows this division through the cultivated farmlands to the right, where man has adapted the land to his needs. The land receives the blessings of divine light, but surely rain and storm is as much God’s work as sunshine, and growing crops is pretty difficult without a steady supply of rain! Cole challenges the viewer to decide, on which side of The Oxbow stands man and God, or good and bad? Are the farmlands more ‘good’ than the gnarled and twisted trees to the left of the picture? Is innocence found in an ugly wilderness, or a bland pasture? If, as the old saying goes, beauty is in the eye (or island) of the beholder, then the beholder of The Oxbow may find themselves with double vision. To the left, what Adam and Eve faced when evicted from the Garden of Eden, while on the right, an interpretation of an increasingly mechanized America, a nation already replete with wars and political strife in its short past.

Perhaps the answer is found in the center of the picture, just below God’s ‘eye’, where if you look closely, the viewer can see Cole himself, next to his easel, emerging from the shelter of the rocks to return to his painting. This is Cole’s America, always returning to reappraise from the present day, to perpetually capture the now of the nation, to balance competing forces while promoting both, for if American is one thing, it is two things at once, its past and its future, always changing both to suit the demands of the present.

From a technical viewpoint, although Cole, Reed and friends strove to separate American art from the Old World of Europe, The Oxbow owes much to European influence. Again, this is quintessentially American, to take the old, remould it and announce it as new. The dark foreground, the use of a tiny human figure to give the picture a sense of scale, the use of an object, in this case an umbrella, to point the way to a pertinent area of the canvas, are all classically European in origin. Here, the techniques adapt to new purposes, with exciting and profound results.        

Hudson River Valley
One can see how Cole’s work took on greater significance once the concept of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism took hold. The Oxbow seems to say the American landscape is unique, God’s gift bestowed upon those willing to work and to spread the Word westwards, where the very light and air has a holy quality unique to this part of the world, far from European corruption and the heathenism of non-Christian countries. However, The Oxbow is more complex than any glib political motto, and simultaneously asks the viewer whether the land is better for man’s work, and queries the more puritanical creed that God and His work is beyond humankind to master and improve.

Cole continued his efforts to foster a spirit of American art into the late 1830s, when he assisted in setting up, in New York, the Apollo Association, the forerunner to the American Art Union. Cole toured Europe again during 1841-42, and on returning to the US, became more interested in paintings with a more blatant religious theme, while also developing an interest in architecture. After his early death in 1848 at the age of 47, his friend and colleague Asher B Durand further immortalized Cole as a figure in his painting Kindred Spirits (1849).  

Cole’s immanence as a painter, along with his fellows in the Hudson River School of painting, was crucial not only during his lifetime, but decades later, when the US sought to consolidate its role as a major global force after the Second World War. Cole and painters like him were recast as ‘luminists’, named after their exquisite use of light, and proof of America's artistic tradition, as proud as those of more established powers. During the Cold War, even the dead had their part to play at the front, but the power of Cole’s work transcends any political boundaries.

The Oxbow (also known as View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm) is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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