How To Read Paintings: Thomas Cole’s Oxbow
Environmental warnings from a classic work of art
Art is a place where ideas are inscribed and experimented with. Human activity can be made to seem beautiful or destructive, depending on how the artwork presents itself.
Thomas Cole’s painting of an oxbow in the Connecticut River Valley has a light and a dark side. The storm that is sweeping across the left hand side of the painting — a storm that has passed — contrasts tonally with the sun-bathed expanse that it leaves in its wake.
Cole was very good at dramatic composition.
Moreover, that which is swathed in shadow is all in the foreground, so that the yellow light stretching out across the more distant lowlands adds emphasis to the impression of expanse and openness. The sunlit plains are occupied by a pastoral scene of fields and farmlands, suggestive of the prospects of landscape cultivation for development of the American nation: the land is ploughed into fields, houses have been built, smoke is rising from chimneys, and in the distant hills, tree clearings scar the slopes.
The high vantage point from Mount Holyoke gives us a sweeping panorama, so that, as the viewer, we are invited to widen our eyes at the beauty and breadth of the scene. If the painting contains anxieties about the fate of the natural environment, then you have to look a little closer to see them.
On the surface, Cole has painted a natural wonder: the winding course of a river across a low-lying valley, with the dramatic addition of changing weather conditions, giving a sense of the artist having ‘captured’ a fleeting moment. In truth, Cole worked mainly in his studio, gradually developing his paintings from sketches.
Painted in 1836, the artist produced a vision of a landscape in a state of transformation. In fact, the painting supplies three overlaid timeframes: the rapid onset of a storm, which arrives and departs in a matter of minutes or hours; the clearing of trees and wilderness to be replaced by agriculture and towns, a process that occurs over years and decades; and the far slower geological process of a river flowing over flatlands and slowly silting up, so creating curves that eventually turn into oxbows, the great horseshoe meander that gives the painting its subject matter.
The work was first shown at the National Academy of Design in 1836 with the title View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm. Painting the American landscape was a new facet of American art. Once seen as a place of peril and hardship, it is a paradox of the American landscape that it was only as it came under threat from mankind that it began to be treated as a spectacle of beauty. This is the fate of all natural territories, of course, and in the same manner as European landscape art was a reaction to 18th century urbanisation and the scientific Enlightenment, so American landscape art took root as the American frontier was pushed further westward into the wilderness.
Cole was a founder member of the Hudson River School, a group of artists who explored the Hudson River Valley and the surrounding mountain ranges. In the tradition of European Romantic landscape painters such as Claude Lorrain and John Constable, the Hudson River School chronicled the disappearing wilderness and the expanding presence of modern civilization as concurrent and sometimes harmonious phenomena.
Cole’s painting, better known simply as The Oxbow, emphatically draws our attention to this frontier line: the painting is split in half along the diagonal, decisively juxtaposing a picture of ‘untamed’ nature with a pastoral settlement, encompassing what Cole described as “a union of the picturesque, the sublime, and the magnificent.”
What was Cole trying to paint here? Is this a celebration of mankind’s dominion over the land or a warning of an ancient environment under threat?
From the turn of the eighteenth century, the relationship between art and the natural world was the subject of much discussion. During the century, irreversible changes took place in the way many people interacted with nature. Fewer and fewer people worked on the land as urbanisation proceeded apace. Scientific advancements revised the perspective of nature as a bearer of symbols and emblems into a classifiable system. The appropriation of wild land into functional, regularised acreage meant that the realm of ‘real nature’ was pushed to a further distance.
Cole was living at a time when the diversity and grandeur of nature were celebrated for its ‘sublime’ qualities, yet the taming of nature was equally valued for its benefits to society. Cole’s painting is successful because it links together these possibly contradictory values into a unified whole.
If this sounds like an ambiguous conclusion, then I think it is possible to discern a grave warning note in Cole’s oxbow painting. On the ‘wilderness’ side, we see a series of gnarled trees among a thick forest of impenetrable green. Nature and civilization are shown as a distinct opposites that fail to co-exist. Broken trees and a ranging storm tell us that the wilderness is threatened, and the culprit is the ‘Arcadia’ of cultivation.
To underline the magnitude of the dilemma, Cole has added a further clue. On the hill in the far background, logging scars in the forest appear to form Hebrew letters, a detail that was only noticed many decades after the painting was first displayed. From our perspective it reads as Noah (נֹ֫חַ). If viewed upside down, as if from God’s perspective, the word Shaddai is formed, ‘The Almighty.’
Viewed from the perspective of the twenty-first century, the painting should remind us that we’ve been pushing back the frontier of wilderness for a long time now. The operations of mainstream society today have grown increasingly remote from nature, both physically and psychologically. This detachment provides the necessary distance for the natural environment to be a domain upon which ideas and ideals might be projected, and for the real effects of the human destruction to become harder and harder to see.
Cole’s painting gives us access to a time when the tension between man and nature was a more finely balanced drama. It illustrates the anxieties that came before our modern world. And as such, it should encourage us to ask a simple question: how long can we go on pushing the human frontier at the cost of ever-diminishing wildlife?