Image: Thomas Cole, England, NY (1801-1848), about 1825-1827, oil on canvas, 23 x 31 1/4 in. (58.42 x 79.38 cm), Purchase: Frank C. Ball Collection, gift of the Ball Brothers Foundation, 1995.035.055

Written by Hannah Schneider, DOMA Guard, Guest Contributor & DOMA Representative on the Dean’s Student Advisory Council

Thomas Cole was one of first environmentalists and proto-environmental (conservationist) artists in the United States. Some of his ideas come from the notions that God’s divine presence embodied nature and that America’s wilderness was central to the nation’s identity. He sought to express the glory of the American landscape through the European concept of romanticism. According to the Art Story, he was the very first artist to apply motifs and techniques from European Romantic landscape painting to North American scenery. 

DOMA’s extensive collection displays a painting called Storm King of the Hudson (1825-1827), created by Thomas Cole. Given Cole’s history and interests, it seems this painting was a precursor to his later works that focused on environmentalism. 

For example, his piece The View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (1836) also known as “The Oxbow,” cultivates a perspective of “untamed wilderness” versus “pastoral settlement,” according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A MET podcast refers to the painting as “one of the most iconic landscapes painted by an American artist.” 

The left side of this painting depicts a storm with showers of rain. It includes “weather-blasted trunks” in the bottom left corner, symbolizing the raw power of nature itself. The vegetation is a lush green and overgrown. 

In contrast, the right side of this painting shows nature tamed through agriculture and farmland. There are crops, fires, and settlements. Thomas Cole himself is in this piece, near the middle and bottom, and looks directly at the viewer as if to ask them to reflect on their own thoughts of this transformation of nature. The MET podcast states that “…the staying power of this painting provides vivid proof that art is a key player in helping us understand our history, our ecology, our environmental relations.” 

In comparison, Thomas Cole’s Storm King of the Hudson (1825-1827) expresses a similar stormy side of nature with its wild inherent character. The trees are blowing in the turbulent wind as the sun’s rays peak out behind massive dark clouds. The vegetation is green, and the water is a brilliant blue. It may be another stormy depiction, but there’s a perspective of raw nature and the beauty in untouched nature. The two sides of the valley frame the island and water into direct view of the audience giving them a chance to reflect in nature.  

In today’s world, conservation efforts can range from native replanting, climate change initiatives, and more.  Whether it’s providing clean water or restoring nature landscape, looking at Storm King of the Hudson (1825-1827) allows viewers an opportunity of self-reflection in their own communities’ efforts for conservation and environmentalism. Nature is an unpredictable wonder that leaves the viewers in awe of its untamed beauty.  

For more information on sustainability efforts from Ball State University and Muncie, Indiana, check out two links here: 

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