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
The Oxbow is widely considered one of the most important American landscape paintings. It features a panoramic view of the Connecticut River Valley as a thunderstorm sweeps through the land. In the midst of painting The Course of Empire (now at the New-York Historical Society), Cole mentioned, in a letter dating from 1836 to his patron Luman Reed, that he was completing a large version of this subject expressly for exhibition and sale. The picture was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1836 as View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm.
This landscape proclaims the uniqueness of America, and is seen as a response to European critics who charged that Americans disregarded their own land. The painting furthermore responds to contemporary artistic debates by encompassing “a union of the picturesque, the sublime, and the magnificent.” The artist juxtaposes wild, untamed nature and serene, pastoral domestication to emphasize the potential of the American nation, and to posit the confrontation of wilderness and civilization that was a hallmark of the nineteenth century. Cole inserts a tiny self-portrait in the middle ground of the scene, seated on the rocks with his easel while painting the Oxbow. He is portrayed as an artist in harmony with, but subsumed by, the power and majesty of his native land. The painting also argues that what he produces, in the face of this natural wonder, is a distinctly American vision.