Directionality in Thomas Cole’s The Oxbow

Ecocritical art history and visual communication

Authored by: Alan C. Braddock

Routledge Handbook of Ecocriticism and Environmental Communication

Print publication date:  February  2019
Online publication date:  February  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138053137
eBook ISBN: 9781315167343
Adobe ISBN:

10.4324/9781315167343-14

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Abstract

The present chapter examines directionality of vision and implied movement in the art of Thomas Cole, a leading American landscape painter of the nineteenth century known as the founder of the Hudson River School. Directionality here refers to the ways in which some works of art communicate an especially powerful sense of specificity about place by inviting us to look in certain directions, prompting reflection about actual environments as opposed to mythic or allegorical settings. Cole and his famous picture The Oxbow of 1836 provide an instructive case study for ecocritical art history, since this transnational immigrant painter in many ways defied the prevailing ideology of Manifest Destiny in American art, which expressed popular beliefs about national expansion in decidedly unidirectional terms of leftward = “westward” progress. In contrast to these dominant visual structures, Cole’s The Oxbow communicates a different sense of directionality, informed by his concerns about deforestation and encroachment on the vertical, wilderness environments of mountains, which he idealized as pristine and uninhabited. Despite Cole’s idiosyncratic approach, however, The Oxbow elided environmental history and politics—notably concerning Native Americans.

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