Thursday, May 12, 2011

Thomas Cole's 'The Oxbow', 1836

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, landscape paintings were very popular, especially as urban and industrial areas began to invade the rural, and many American people reminisced and sought out the stunning natural scenery the country had to offer. Thomas Cole, an English-born American artist, founded the Hudson River School art movement in the mid-nineteenth century – a movement known for its realistic and detailed depiction of American scenery and wilderness, and took advantage of the American taste for native scenery, to create the beautiful landscape painting ‘The Oxbow’ (1836). Titled in full as 'View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow', Cole's painting is laden with symbolism. The ordered and peaceful land at the left of the painting - a clear representation of the settled areas of rural America - juxtaposed by the dramatic storm clouds and dark, untamed wilderness at the right might be read as the future potential of the American landscape as a pastoral settlement and the perceived notion of order over chaos (order being the control man has over the landscape, chaos the uncontrolled wilderness.)

According to the website Picturing America, “On the hillside beyond the oxbow, Cole left a hidden message: the word Noah is roughly incised in Hebrew letters, a code that read upside down spells out Shaddai, the Almighty. Is Cole suggesting that the landscape be read as a holy text that reveals the word of God? If so, wouldn’t any human intrusion be a sacrilege? On the other hand, the artist’s careful division of the landscape implies that civilization drives out the danger and chaos inherent in the natural world. Perhaps the painting itself embodies Cole’s ambivalence.” The painting here is ambiguous in its message.

Cole himself is visible in the painting (the small figure in the center, atop the mountain looking over the idyllic scene – sketching materials at hand) a few yards away from a red and white striped umbrella firmly jutting out of the ground, pointing toward the other side of the river. The umbrella here might symbolise a flag, with Cole having planted it to claim the wilderness as American territory; perhaps, as the threatening storm clouds above the wilderness suggest, Cole recognised that the wilderness was a threat to civilisation that should be dealt with – however the painting could also be read as an admiration of the natural landscape and how civilisation is encroaching upon it (note the number of small fires in the settled areas, and what looks like a blasted apart tree trunk on the right.) Cole's painting is a perfect example of the conflicting ideals and landscapes of America in the nineteenth century, as many other artists showed in their work.

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