THOMAS COLE'S THE OXBOW: THE ROMANCE AND HARMONY OF THE AMERICAN LANDSCAPE

When his art burst on the nation in 1825, paintings by Thomas Cole such as The Oxbow gave depictions of American landscapes the status of serious and important art. The acceptance as beautiful of a view like this, a bend in a river in the rugged terrain of Massachusetts, indicates a major change in American attitudes and taste.

Ever since the country's beginnings, it had been taboo for ambitious American artists to paint the uncultivated natural world around them. The Declaration of Independence did not change the situation, because it did not extend beyond politics. Since the United States was a newcomer among nations, it strove to repel charges of crudity by pursuing correct taste as practiced in Europe.

Correct European taste was Neoclassical, and insisted, in the words of the poet Alexander Pope, that "the proper study of mankind is man." It followed that a landscape had esthetic value only insofar as it had been shaped by human minds and hands. The largely untamed countryside of the new continent was thus ruled the least paintable of all.

The artist who smashed the American taboo against painting the American world was, not as paradoxically as it might seem, an immigrant. Thomas Cole ( 1801-1848) had, at the age of eighteen, persuaded his parents to flee the smoky skies of English industrialism to what he visualized as a new Eden.

Cole's artistic emergence coincided almost exactly with two historical consummations: the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine and the opening of the Erie Canal. The doctrine warned European nations away from our hemisphere; the canal made direct trade between the Eastern Seaboard and the expanding West financially practical. It fostered a new

____________________
An earlier version of this essay appeared in Travel and Leisure ( July 1985), pp. 80-81, 117.

-145-

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