“the march of cultivation and the loss of wilderness”

“…the “Oxbow“, shows a placid river in Massachusetts, curving sharply around a spit of land, with thick, unmolested forests on one side of the canvas, and a landscape of farms, fields and small houses on the other. The sharp division in the picture, roughly corresponding to east and west on a map, dramatizes the march of cultivation and the loss of wilderness.”

Detail: The painter Thomas Cole within his own painting “Oxbow”, peers out at us.

“the curious question mark shape of the river”

“The painter depicted himself as a small, dapper figure, in the lower margin of the picture, looking out at the viewer, not at the landscape he is supposedly limning. That detail, and the curious question mark shape of the river, leads curator Tim Barringer…  to sum up Cole’s work in a query put directly to the American people:

“Is it possible to balance the pursuit of wealth with the preservation of the God-given wilderness, to temper the material with the spiritual, industry with art?”

That question is connected to a larger, more ominous one: If the answer is no, as surely it seems to have been, can the United States avoid the cycle of rise and ruin the artist depicted in The Course of Empire ?”

Tim Barringer
Philip Kennicott

Tim Barringer, curator / Philip Kennicott, journalist, on the still relevant work of the Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole   source: Washington Post


The Course of the Empire: Destruction, 1836, Thomas Cole