In this post I will be taking a closer look at "The Oxbow" by Thomas Cole. This is a grand landscape painting with undertones about the growth of civilization in America during the 19th century.
Cole was the founder of the Hudson River School, which was a group of landscape painters known for their romantic portrayal of the American landscape.
Key Facts About "The Oxbow"
Here are some of the key facts about "The Oxbow":
- It was painted in 1836.
- The title is actually "View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm (1836)" but it is more commonly referred to as "The Oxbow".
- The painting features a stark contrast between the untamed wilderness on the left and the growth of civilization on the right. I go into more detail on this below.
- If you look closely, you will see that Cole painted a tiny self-portrait at the bottom. There is a close-up of the self-portrait toward the end of this post.
- In the distance, you can see logging scars in the landscape as it transitions from the wilderness into civilization. These logging scars appear to read as "Noah" in Hebrew letters (נח). From upside down, it appears to read as "Shaddai", which is one of the names given to God in the Hebrew Bible. All this was only noticed long after the landscape was actually painted, so it is just speculation as to whether this was done on purpose or not.
Contrast Between the Untamed Wilderness and Civilization
One of the key features of this painting is the contrast between the untamed wilderness on the left and civilization on the right. You can almost cut the painting into two neat sections.
First, let's take a closer look at the untamed wilderness on the left.
For the sky, dark grays are used to paint the dramatic storm. Notice the subtle variation in color temperature, with some parts picking up the warmth of the light, and other parts being left in the cold shadow.
Cole skillfully hinted at the heavy downpour in the distance, with the brushwork seeming to pull downwards. If you look closely, you can also see lightning in the lower-left of the sky.
The trees, leaves and plants are painted with rich greens and browns; exactly what you would expect to see in the untamed wilderness. There are no strong highlights, with most of the lights being around the middle of the value range. This allows all the colors to appear very rich and full (colors tend to be less saturated at the very light end of the value range).
The trees appear incredibly dense. I am not sure how Cole painted this, but I assume he started with a dark base color then went over the top with lighter greens to add detail. There is also a dull cluster of trees in the distance which helps create a sense of depth in the painting.
Also, notice how organic all the shapes are on the left compared to the more geometric shapes on the right side.
Then we have the right side of the painting which is in stark contrast to the untamed wilderness on the left. My first impression is that of calmness, peacefulness and organization.
The colors are soft and painted within a tight value range. There are no strong darks, with the darkest tone being around the middle of the value range. So on the left, there are no strong lights and on the right, there are no strong darks.
The sky is painted with delicate brushwork and many highlights. The orange streak on the horizon line provides a strong sense of light and really pulls you through the painting.
The river provides that classic "S" shape we so commonly see in landscapes. It also appears very neat. The scattered trees and patches of land show the growing civilization and contrast against the dense vegetation on the left.
Intricate Brushwork and Detail
This is a very busy composition which features intricate brushwork and detail. But there are some areas where there is not much going on, like the blue of the sky and the river. These quiet areas provide some breathing room between the more detailed areas.
Tip: Painting (and life in general) is all about balance. Complex and detailed areas need simple and plain areas, just as much as red needs green, or as light needs shadow.
Cole used a high level of detail all throughout the painting, even for the clouds in the distance. As a result, there does not appear to be a key focal point. Rather, the painting as a whole seems to be in focus. I tend to be more selective with what I paint with intricate detail; this gives me more control over where I want people to look in my painting.
Using Sketches to Plan the Painting
Below is a sketch by Cole which was done in preparation for the painting. Sketches like this are incredibly useful for mapping out and testing your idea before you commit to a large and intricate painting like "The Oxbow".
Thomas Cole's Self-Portrait
As mentioned earlier in this post, Cole painted a tiny self-portrait at the bottom of the painting. He depicted himself nestled between the rocks and trees of the wilderness, looking over the river. This adds a personal touch to the painting and also hints at Cole's close association with the landscape, which makes sense as he built his life around landscape painting. Here is a close-up:
If you look closely, you can even see his signature with what appears to be his other possessions.
Back of the Painting
Here is a photo of the back of the painting. I always find it interesting to see how the master paintings are presented and we usually do not get a chance to see what is behind.
Key Takeaways from "The Oxbow"
Here are some of the key takeaways from "The Oxbow" which you could incorporate into your own paintings:
- Contrast is everything in painting. Cole used contrast to make a point about the growing civilization.
- The subject you are painting should determine the colors, brushwork and level of detail you use.
- If you are going to paint a busy composition, then make sure you plan for it with sketches and other studies.
- Think about different ways you can add a personal touch to your paintings. Cole did this by painting in a tiny self-portrait.
(You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. It goes into much more detail on the fundamentals of art.)