Art Attack: Thomas Cole’s ‘The Oxbow’


If anyone can prove a raging British author wrong, it is Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School. 


In the early 1800s, America did not have any deep history or ancient monuments as the Europeans did, but what they lacked in historical significance was made up with their natural wonders. Basil Hall, a British traveler, and author, took note of the country’s landscape and claimed that Americans could not appreciate natural beauty.


“…the fine arts are not steadily cultivated,” Hall states in his book “Travels in North America, in the Years 1827 and 1828.” “…there is little taste for that description of excellence.”


Thomas Cole was one of the many artists that took this criticism to heart, leading to the creation of his most notable piece: “The Oxbow”. 


Created with oil paint on an expansive canvas, “The Oxbow” displays the Connecticut River from the top of Mt. Holyoke in Massachusetts. Cole depicts the power and wildness of the natural world through the inclusion of the rapidly changing weather and the blasted tree in the foreground. Amongst the unruly nature, Cole also chooses to include peaceful farmlands and clear skies, highlighting the duality of nature as not only a destructive force, but also a beautiful source of inspiration.


I find it very interesting that this painting also makes clear the message of Manifest Destiny, as the farmers coming from the right side of the painting mimic westward expansion; however, this also serves as a reminder that nature does not yield to human activity, evident by the sudden thunderstorm.


“The beauty of the Oxbow is that it allows us to envision a world that can be shapened through our actions,” claims Emma Horowitz in a Tradition Online article, “…which is simultaneously–and necessarily– a world we do not fully control.”


This piece is absolutely amazing and by far one of my favorites that I’ve covered. It holds not only historical significance but also cultural, as it marks the beginning of a uniquely American art movement. White highlights and excellent use of values bring the painting to life. The colors are vibrant and blend beautifully with one another, and include extremely small details that wouldn’t be noticed with one look. For example, in the lower middle part of the painting, Thomas Cole painted himself next to a canvas, and in the background on one of the hills, the Hebrew word ‘Noah’ is written. 


Thomas Cole’s “The Oxbow”, a magnificent and profound work of art, unquestionably disproved Basil Hill’s remarks. I can only hope that one day, I’ll be able to see this work in person.