The founding spirit of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, Thomas Cole, received a lot of attention in the press in early 2018, due to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. In February, an article by Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post wondered whether Cole “feared progress and hated democracy.” Cole, who emigrated to America from England at age 17, had witnessed the industrial degradation of land in England and feared that the ambitious growth of American industry would follow the same destructive path. Illustrating this notion was his series of paintings called “The Course of Empire,” which traced a civilization from freshness and growth to hubris and dominance and finally into decay. He dreaded the thought that America was losing its freshness and turning toward expansionist hubris. There was a review in March of the same exhibit by Holland Cotter in the New York Times, called “Thomas Cole, American Moralist.”
Both articles quote William Blake’s evocative phrase “dark Satanic mills,” and both consider one of Cole’s more famous paintings, called “View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow).” Cole created the painting in 1835, the same year in which Edward Hitchcock was writing his first paper on the fossil “bird tracks,” now known as dinosaur footprints, of the Connecticut River Valley. Hitchcock would soon discover that fossil tracks littered the whole valley, including the immediate surroundings of Mount Holyoke. The site of Cole’s painting is only a few miles from Amherst College, where Hitchcock was teaching geology, chemistry, and other sciences. Edward and his wife, the scientific illustrator Orra White Hitchcock, shared Cole’s deep religious values and love of landscape, yet they may never have met this artist with whom they had so much in common. Hitchcock has a personal association with the Oxbow, as he witnessed its formation when flooding cut through the narrow neck of a loopy meander of the river, severing it from the main stream.
Like other artists of the period, Cole was greatly interested in the new science of geology. He assiduously studied geological texts, amassed his own rock collection, and closely observed the landscapes to make sure he depicted them in a way that was geologically credible. His primary collector and patron, Daniel Wadsworth, was brother-in-law to the Yale scientist and publisher of the American Journal of Science, Benjamin Silliman, Hitchcock’s mentor and lifelong friend. Wadsworth founded the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, which still exhibits a glorious collection of paintings from the Hudson River School, including several Coles.
Listen to a reading of a perspective on a different painting, written by art historian Rebecca Bedell, author of The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875. The work under discussion is “The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge,” painted by Cole in 1829. Like many of his contemporaries, Cole believed that evidence of the biblical Flood that carried Noah’s arkful of animals was still visible across the landscape in the form of erratic boulders, striations in bedrock, and broken pieces of rock. At the time of the painting, it would be eight years before Louis Agassiz proposed his theory that such characteristics were evidence that glaciers had once covered the northern hemisphere, gouging the bedrock as it spread outward and carrying the boulders and rubble, eventually to drop them later when the glacier melted. Hitchcock at first thought as Cole did, but he was to abandon the idea that detritus from the biblical Flood could still be seen scattered over the landscape. As a devoted Christian committed to Scripture, he believed in the Flood as an historical event, but thought that it had been local to the Middle East, not a worldwide occurrence, and whatever evidence had been left was long since washed away by geological processes.