Thomas Cole wrote in his “Essay on American Scenery,”
“The imagination can scarcely conceive Arcadian vales more lovely or more peaceful than the valley of the Connecticut,”
“Its villages are rural places where trees overspread every dwelling, and the fields upon its margin have the richest verdure.”
This idealized view of rural America was already starting to collapse when Cole painted View from Mount Holyoke, also known as The Oxbow. By the 1830s, Mount Holyoke had become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States, surpassed only by Niagara Falls, and the influx of sightseers was bound to disrupt its pastoral atmosphere. In selecting this corner of the country to preserve in a monumental painting, Cole produced an enduring visual record of a vanishing way of life.
Landscape was a popular and profitable type of painting in the early decades of the nineteenth century, when a growing population of urban dwellers looked on rural life as a remedy for the problems of industrialization. If they were too caught up in business to make weekend trips to the country, these affluent people could at least turn their gaze on a peaceful picture of the life they’d left behind. Cole’s decision to portray the famous view from Mount Holyoke was initially commercial: he took advantage of the American taste for identifiable native scenery to paint what he hoped would be a marketable painting.
Intent on producing a crowd-pleaser, Cole adopted a trick from the panorama, a theatrical display in which an enormous picture is revealed to the spectator one section at a time. On a canvas nearly six feet wide, Cole painted the view from the top of the mountain as though it were experienced over time, with a dramatic storm thundering through the landscape. On the right side of the picture lies the Arcadia that Cole described in his essay—an idyllic place with tidy farms, a respectable number of shade trees, and a meandering river to enrich the soil. The distinctive feature of this peaceful place is the river’s graceful bend into a U-shape that recalls an oxbow, itself an emblem of human control over nature. The scene is set just after the storm, when the skies are clearing and filled with a golden light.
In contrast, the left side of the picture shows the mountain wilderness still in the grip of the thunderstorm. The landscape is dark, with heavy skies and an ominous flash of lightning. The blasted trunks of the primitive forest appear unrelated to the useful trees scattered across the valley below. The two realms are linked by a small but significant detail: the red-and-white umbrella leaning diagonally from the mountainside to make a visual bridge across the river. Below it lies an artist’s sketching gear, including a portfolio bearing the signature of Thomas Cole. The artist himself appears a few yards away, a tiny figure in a flat-crowned hat nestled with his easel into the rocks and trees. Even though the neatly divided farmland implies a human population, Cole is the only visible actor in this sweeping
panorama, and he has planted his sunshade like a flag to claim the wilderness as his own territory.
It’s difficult to know what Cole believed. He admired a landscape tamed and cultivated by human hands, but he also recognized that the “wildness” of the American landscape, a sphere of moral significance for Americans, was threatened by the arrival of civilization. On the hillside beyond the oxbow, Cole left a hidden message: the word Noah is roughly incised
in Hebrew letters, a code that read upside down spells out El Shaddai, the Almighty. Is Cole suggesting that the landscape be read as a holy text that reveals the word of God? If so, wouldn’t any human intrusion be a sacrilege? On the other hand, the artist’s careful division of the landscape implies that civilization drives out the danger and chaos inherent in the natural world. Perhaps the painting itself embodies Cole’s ambivalence. It was produced, after all, expressly for public exhibition in the expectation of material gain—an artful exploitation of the nation’s natural beauty.
October 18, 2011 PowerPoint View from Mount Holyoke Class 9
Have a good week! -Mrs. S