How To Read Paintings: Thomas Cole’s Oxbow

Environmental warnings from a classic work of art

Christopher P Jones
6 min readMay 26, 2019

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‘View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow’ (1836) by Thomas Cole. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Source Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Detail from ‘View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow’ (1836) by Thomas Cole. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Source Wikimedia Commons.

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…

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