Unravelling the Stark Message in this Landscape Masterpiece

Shifting fortunes told by a classic work of art

Christopher P Jones
7 min readJun 5, 2024

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View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole. Oil on canvas. 130.8 × 193 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, U.S. Image source Wikimedia Commons

One of the things that art can do is serve as a space where ideas are inscribed and explored. It has the power to portray human activity as either beautiful or destructive — and it is this contrast that the English-American artist Thomas Cole presented so well in this work.

On the surface, Cole depicted a natural wonder: the winding course of a river across a low-lying valley, with the dramatic addition of changing weather conditions, so giving a sense of the artist having “captured” a fleeting moment.

Yet spend some time looking at the image and a great deal more is revealed: about time, human progress, and the shifting fortunes of nature under man’s dominion. Art historians have long debated its precise interpretation. Let’s take a closer look…

Two sides of the landscape

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole. Oil on canvas. 130.8 × 193 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, U.S. Image source Wikimedia Commons

The painting takes as its subject an oxbow — a tight U-shaped bend in a river — as it weaves its way around the Connecticut River Valley. The high vantage point from Mount Holyoke gives us a sweeping panorama…

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