19th Century American Landscape Painters | American Transcendentalism | Thomas Cole

The “Reformers” and “Re-Makers” of the American Identity

Chelsea DeLay | June 9th, 2014 | Posted in Essays

During the nineteenth century, American culture demonstrated a particularly strong relationship between art and literature; Hudson River School painters and our nation’s poets were united by their shared appreciation for the natural landscape and an interest in the philosophical teachings of Transcendentalism as the movement swept through the United States. These painters and poets were ardently devoted to a belief in the presence of inherent goodness in both man and nature, and advocated a focus on perfecting oneself through a celebration of individualism, believing that a spiritual relationship with the sublime American landscape assisted in the search for self-reliance. The writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau had a profound influence on Hudson River School artists, and their powerful essays and poems gave a voice to the American spirit. As an instrumental figure in promoting the quest for defining the American identity, Emerson encouraged the notion that a kinship with nature would bring a person closer to self-discovery when he wrote, “What is man born for but to be a Reformer, a Re-maker of what man has made…a restorer of truth and good, imitating that great Nature which embosoms us all, and which sleeps no moment on an old past, but every hour repairs herself, yielding us every morning a new day, and with every pulsation a new life?”

The essence of Transcendentalism could be seen in the magnificent landscapes and sublime vistas painted by Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and Frederic Edwin Church, nineteenth-century American painters which would be included among Emerson’s “Re-makers.” The untapped potential and unbridled promise of America was enticing, yet as a new era of progress and development was ushered in, there was a fear that the raw beauty of our nation’s landscape would fall under threat from the effects of modernization. This conflict openly manifests itself within Thomas Cole’s The Oxbow, a magnificent representation of the transcendentalist struggle between the purity of the individual and the corruption of society. Cole depicted the impending clash between civilization and nature; in the background, agricultural development has begun to encroach upon the foreground’s wilderness, while the dark clouds of change brew ominously, promising a certain deluge over America’s revered natural terrain.

Thomas Cole (1801–1848) View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836 Oil on canvas, 51½ x 76 inches Collection Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1908, 08.228 - See more at: http://hrs-art.com/important-hudson-river-school-works/thomas-cole-view-from-mount-holyoke-northampton-massachusetts-after-a-thunderstorm-the-oxbow-1836/#sthash.2DRi5icO.dpuf

Thomas Cole (1801–1848) View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836 Oil on canvas, 51½ x 76 inches. Collection Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1908, 08.228

Chelsea DeLay is a Researcher at Questroyal Fine Art. Chelsea earned her MA in art business at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York, and her BA in art history and classical studies. Her interest in American paintings first began while working at an auction house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and has multiplied exponentially since joining the Questroyal team.