The Oxbow lake was painted in 1836 by Thomas Cole who revolutionised landscape painting. At the time Hall was criticising American paintings and their ‘inattentiveness to their scenery’. Cole was commissioned by his Patron, Luman Reed to create a series entitled the ‘Course of Empire’ It was to be a ‘series of no less than five paintings.’ Whilst excited at first Cole began to sink into depression as the work was intensely slow. Reed recommended Cole created something for the opening of the National Academy of Design’s annual exhibition. Cole suggested using one of the images from the series he was working on but Reed turned the idea down, feeling it would spoil the unveiling of the series. His next suggestion was to change American landscape painting for ever, Cole was instructed to create a painting much like one from the series he was creating. When Reed had seen it he said ‘no man ever produced a more pleasing landscape in a more pleasing season’ Cole responded in a letter,
I have already commenced a view from Mt. Holyoke—it is about the finest scene I have in my sketchbook & is well known—it will be novel and I think effective
The result was ‘The Oxbow, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm’
Critics have described the painting as a juxtaposition of man made elements and nature, whilst it looks purely wild we can notice the marks of the landscape caused by agriculture, though far from marks they create the image of a patchwork quilt. In the distance the scars of logging are ominously present. Usually the contrast of man and nature would be blended together harmoniously but Cole took a different approach, deliberately depicting the contrast and strength of each, the divide meaning the two would never meet. There is even symbolism hidden in the background. First noticed by professor Matthew Baigell, the scars of the landscape translate to Hebrew when read upside down, as if ‘from God’s perspective’ shaddai which translates as ‘almighty‘
Whilst I read that Cole wanted to show how nature and man would never be in harmony I do believe that one day nature and man will live among itself. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, the idea of creating a world where only good people exist, no evil, no poaching or hunting, abuse of people or animals. A place where man and nature live in harmony. Perhaps something to be thought of for a future assignment.
What I especially like about this painting is how the artist featured himself painting the view, almost like a painting of a painting of a painting. Thus becoming part of the scenery. There is a real beauty and charm to this image and in my personal opinion it feels like a stunning digital art creation of a fantastical landscape, perhaps an envisioning of the Shire in the Hobbit. I’m unsure as to why I feel this. There is something quite magical and evocative with the light placement and the oncoming thunder storms. His paintings almost have a feel of Ansel Adam’s photography.
Whilst this is the finished painting we can also see some of Cole’s initial sketchbook paintings. He created this to capture the harmony and balance of the scene to use for the finished painting.