Thomas Cole. Oil on canvas, 1836, 51 ½ x 76 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1908, 8.228.
Frustrated with his slow progress on The Course of Empire and worried about finances, Cole stopped work on the series to paint The Oxbow for the National Academy of Design annual exhibition of 1836. Writing to his patron Luman Reed, Cole explained his motivation for painting The Oxbow: "Fancy pictures seldom sell & they generally take more time than views so I have determined to paint one of the latter. I have already commenced a view from Mt. Holyoke. It is about the finest scene I have in my sketchbook & is well known. It will be novel & I think effective." 1 The site, where the Connecticut River forms a distinctive loop in its course, was another popular tourist attraction in the nineteenth century, complete with its own mountain house.
In The Oxbow, the self-portrait of the artist at work at his easel is a significant detail. In fact, Cole was one of the first American artists to execute oil sketches in the field. This detail shows Cole's apparent commitment to the empirical study of nature, emphasizing his method of painting en plein air. The artist seems to declare that the finished painting will be a "true" view of the site. Yet as much as Cole seemed to celebrate his activity of en plein air painting in The Oxbow, he downplayed its importance in 1835:
I think that a vivid picture of any object in the mind's eye is worth a hundred finished sketches made on the spot—which are never more than half true—for the glare of light destroys the true effect of colour & the tones of Nature are too refined to be obtained without repeated painting & glazings. And by my method I learn better what Nature is & painting ought to be—get the philosophy of Nature & Art—whereas a finished sketch may be done without obtaining either one or the other—and it is in great measure a mere mechanical operation. 2
In line with a well-established academic hierarchy, which exalted history painting over landscape views, Cole in fact regarded his ambitious "fancy pictures," such as the five-part Course of Empire, as his most important achievements. The artist once protested: "I do feel that I am not a mere leaf painter, that I have loftier conceptions than any mere combinations of inanimate & uninformed Nature. But I am out of place... there are few persons of real taste, & no opportunities for the artist of Genius to develope his powers; the utilitarian tide sets against fine Arts." 3
The Oxbow received mixed reviews at the exhibition, but to Cole's surprise it was sold for $500 to Charles N. Talbot, a wealthy New York entrepreneur. Despite its initial lukewarm reception, The Oxbow became one of Cole's most famous paintings and influenced numerous other Hudson River School artists in its panoramic format, broad sky, and extremely detailed foreground. 4 Part of its enduring appeal lies in how it powerfully conveys the artist's complicated ideas about the transformation of the American wilderness into a settled landscape.