When Landscape Painting Was Protest Art

Thomas Cole Arcadia painting
The Arcadian or Pastoral State, second painting in The Course of Empire, by Thomas Cole

The landscape painter Thomas Cole is known as the father of the Hudson River School, yet his ideas were different from his followers who celebrated Manifest Destiny. Hints of this emerge in his 1834-1836 series of paintings called The Course of Empire, in which civilization emerges from wilderness into a pastoral community and then a city of gleaming white columns, only to fall into chaos. In the last of the five paintings—Desolation—the moon serenely rises over nature reclaiming the ruins.

The series reflected Cole’s anxiety over nineteenth-century American progress, a time when ecological destruction for development was unchecked and Andrew Jackson‘s administration pushed westward expansion by forcibly removing indigenous people and approving slavery in the territories. Cole lamented: “It appears to me that the moral principle of the nation is much lower than formerly … The hope of the wise and the good will have perished and scenes of tyranny and wrong, blood and oppression such as have been acted since the world was created—will be again performed as long as man lasts.”

Cole, the first great American landscape painter, was an immigrant, coming from England as a teenager in 1818. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is marking the 200th anniversary of his arrival in Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings. The exhibit opens with paintings from his home country. J. M. W. Turner’s Dudley, Worcestershire (1832) is cacophonous with smokestacks and waterfront industry, overshadowing picturesque hills and spires dimly visible in the background; Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg’s startling Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) features a rural night ablaze with the fires of ironwork furnaces. The exhibition considers how the Industrial Revolution in England influenced Cole’s premonitions about the United States, and how study of art in Europe, before creating The Course of Empire, gave him a global perspective on the balance between urbanization and nature.

Thomas Cole “held out the hope for a harmonious coexistence of the human and the natural.”

Despite his brooding, Cole was not a Luddite (unlike the English textile workers who had wrecked the machines in the Lancashire of his youth). Scholar Carl Pfluger wrote that Cole “did fulminate, in writings such as American Scenery, against the ‘ravages of the axe’ in his beloved woods; but his ‘conservatism’ always allowed for a fitting measure of progress, and held out the hope for a harmonious coexistence of the human and the natural.”

One of the major works in the Thomas Cole’s Journey exhibit—View From Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow) (1836)—has one side of its large canvas dominated by untamed vegetation and a gnarled tree, while the other is leveled into farmland. The divider is the Connecticut River curving like a question mark. Cole himself sits at the center, gazing at the viewer from between these vistas. Curator Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque noted in the Metropolitan Museum Journal that “Cole chose to sign the canvas in the artist’s satchel, its position signaled by the protruding umbrella, [which] suggests that we are here dealing with a self-portrait.”

In The Journal of American History, art historian Bryan J. Wolf states that artists like Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt “transformed Cole’s art—and the formulaic ways of painting he bequeathed them—from a vehicle of protest against prevailing social conditions into an expression of them.” The Met’s exhibition not only considers a complex foundation of American art, but also reflects our current political moment—when environmental regulations and protections are being limited. Like the two sides of “Oxbow,” there remain multiple futures for the country, and ways forward that do not obliterate nature for progress.


JSTOR Citations

The Views and Visions of Thomas Cole

By: Carl Pfluger

The Hudson Review, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Winter, 1995), pp. 629-635

The Hudson Review, Inc

"The Oxbow" by Thomas Cole: Iconography of an American Landscape Painting

By: Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque

Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 17 (1982), pp. 63-73

The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Review: Thomas Cole: Landscape into History; Understanding Thomas Cole Today; Thomas Cole and the Rise of American Landscape Painting

By: Bryan J. Wolf

The Journal of American History, Vol. 83, No. 3 (Dec., 1996), pp. 958-962

Oxford University Press on behalf of Organization of American Historians

Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer focused on history, architecture, and visual culture. Previously, she was a staff writer at Hyperallergic and senior editor at Atlas Obscura. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide. Contact her on Twitter @allisoncmeier.

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