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In the Classroom > Picturing America Lessons

Just Sit and Watch the River Flow

Lesson created by: Jeremy Rogers

Grade Level: 9-12


5-A Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow, 1836

The Oxbow

Thomas Cole (American, born England, 1801-1848), View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow, 1836, Oil on canvas; 51 1/2 x 76 in. (130.8 x 193 cm): The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1908 (08.228) Image © 1995 The Metropolitan Museum of Art


    Students will understand that:
  • different artists can interpret the same thing in varying ways.
  • different media can convey different impressions, moods or feelings (you might consider the words "impressions", "tone" or "mood" instead of the word "feelings".)
  • color vs. black and white can change the way in which the viewer perceives the same image.
  • The landscape is fluid and changes over time due in part to nature and also to the influence of human activity.

Focusing Statement

Today we will be looking at a number of different artists' views of the Oxbow near Northampton including perhaps the most famous by Thomas Cole, painted in 1836. We will look for ways in which the artworks differ, not only in style but also in terms of how the artist saw the scene and chose to represent it. Those differing views may reflect the time in which the artist lived or the style of work they had adopted. You will also notice that the river's course has changed over the course of time and is reflected in the artworks.

Background Information

From the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Museum of Metropolitan Art:

The Hudson River School was America's first true artistic fraternity. Its name was coined to identify a group of New York City-based landscape painters that emerged about 1850 under the influence of the English émigré Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and flourished until about the time of the Centennial. Because of the inspiration exerted by his work, Cole is usually regarded as the "father" or "founder" of the school, though he himself played no special organizational or fostering role except that he was the teacher of Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900). Along with Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Church was the most successful painter of the school until its decline. After Cole's death in 1848, his older contemporary Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) became the acknowledged leader of the New York landscape painters; in 1845, he rose to the presidency of the National Academy of Design, the reigning art institution of the period, and, in 1855-56, published a series of "Letters on Landscape Painting" which codified the standard of idealized naturalism that marked the school's production. The New York landscape painters were not only stylistically but socially coherent. Most belonged to the National Academy, were members of the same clubs, especially the Century, and, by 1858, many of them even worked at the same address, the Studio Building on West Tenth Street, the first purpose-built artist workspace in the city. Eventually, several of the artists built homes on the Hudson River. Though the earliest references to the term "Hudson River School" in the 1870s were disparagingly aimed, the label has never been supplanted and fairly characterizes the artistic body, its New York headquarters, its landscape subject matter, and often literally its subject.

While most of the artists just were visitors to our valley two of them are local artists, Orra White Hitchcock (1796 - 1863) and Martha Armstrong (b.1940- ). Hitchcock was the wife of Deerfield Academy Headmaster and Amherst College professor Edward Hitchcock. She was an avid illustrator and worked with many landscape scenes around the valley including Mount Tom and Mount Sugarloaf. She also provided her husband with poster illustration for his classes at Amherst. Martha Armstrong attended Smith College and the Rhode Island School of Design. Describing her work she says

"Painting the landscape, for me, is watching the light. Painting still lifes in the long slanting light of winter is a way to keep track of myself and the days as they move toward spring. I paint fast and try the image again and again as the light changes. Painting this way may be as much about how the eye sees or the brain works as it is about the light. I get double takes of the image. It seems playful. There is a dailyness about this. It is like painting landscapes inside or from inside out to the landscape. Painters have always worked this way. It is obvious in Cubism- repeating the image- maybe not so obvious but there in Bonnard."
-Martha Armstrong

Geological context

  • The artworks we are examining are all looking at an oxbow lake of the Connecticut River. Oxbows are formed by the meandering of mature rivers. Here is a webpage which explains the formation in some detail. http://www.mbgnet.net/fresh/lakes/oxbow.htm
  • As you look at the images you will see how the oxbow has evolved over the past century and a half from being a sweeping bend in Thomas Cole's work to a bridged and stranded piece of the river in both Hannock and Armstrong's works. Other noticeable changes in the landscape are caused by the amount of human activity reflected therein.

Examining Expressive Content

"What do you see? What do you wonder about?"
You and your students can assume that each art work is like a self-contained world containing deliberate choices made by an artist. Those choices had to do not only with the things that appear in the work but also how those things were represented. Of course, it is important to remember that the artist would have been influenced by the time and place in which he/she lived.

    Ask student to look at the six works of art. Ask:
  • What clues can you find about the changes in style of the art, geography of the landscape and the overall impression that this particular piece of art gives you?
  • As you discuss, write down your observations and ideas and save them for later.
  • Be sure to think about art elements such as color, line, composition, the scale of a work, as well as, subject matter.
  • Be sure to record things that you don't understand or want to know more about.
  • Also, be sure to guide the students to consider where the artist placed focus or importance. Finally ask students which of the works they find most pleasing personally, what factors make it so?

Images to use:

Picture 1

  • The Oxbow, 1836, Thomas Cole, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

To the left a storm crosses a wilderness scene. To the right warm sunshine bathes a rural area. It is rare for Cole to combine two differing weather elements or cultivated/uncultivated scenes into a single work. "One of few of his works where he acknowledges the positive qualities of progress, of turning raw nature not into a wasteland but into a pleasant rural habitat." (Baigell M. 1981 Thomas Cole. Watson-Guptill. NY NY)

Picture 2

Curator's Comments When the Museum acquired this painting in 1953, its author was unknown, although it had an undeciphered monogram and was dated '65 on the canvas. It represents a view of Northampton, with Paradise Pond and the Mill River in the foreground and the Connecticut River and Amherst in the distance. In 1979, Betsy Jones, the Museum's former curator of painting, finally solved the mystery. She used historic photographs to determine that the "new" high school, with its distinctive cupola-shaped towers shown in the painting, was built in 1864. The hoe factory, erected in 1866, is not present, confirming the painting's date as 1865. Her research led to the discovery of local newspaper notices of the visit of British artist Thomas Charles Farrer to the Valley in 1865, when he is reported as having completed "two fine pictures, one of Mount Tom and the other of Northampton, from the dome of the Hospital."

Farrer came to New York in his late teens after studying with art critic John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Inspired by their teaching, he formed the Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art to promote the "faithful and loving representation of nature," which is reflected in this carefully observed portrayal of Northampton and its environs.

Picture 3

  • The Oxbow, After Church, After Cole, Flooded (Flooded River for the Matriarchs: E. and A. Mongan), Green Light, 2000, Stephen Hannock (American, born Albany, New York 1951), medium: acrylic, alkyd and oil glazes with collage elements on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Picture 4

Picture 5

  • Oxbow from the Summit House, 1993, Armstrong, Martha (American ca. 1940), painting oil on canvas frame, gift of the artist. Mount Holyoke Collection, South Hadley, MA.

Abstract view of the oxbow in the Connecticut River as seen from above (from the Summit House of Mount Holyoke)

Picture 6

  • West View from Holyoke, 1833, Hitchcock, Orra White (American, 1796 - 1863), print lithograph printed in black with hand coloring on paper. Smith College Collection, Northampton, MA.

Teaching Plan

  • Students will research the Hudson River School with an eye towards the period in which it develops. They will look at major historic events of the period (mid-1800s). They will also look at the evolution of American painting styles from the 1830s through now and fit the artworks into that timeline. http://www.phillipscollection.org/research/american_art/timeline.htm

Putting It All Together

Return to the image and re-read the focusing statement to the class. The class should return to the image(s) and revisit their preliminary observations in light of what they have learned about the historical and geological context. What do they now see? What else would your students like to know?

Background Information about the Artists


NCSS Standard #3

  • Learners understand that the study of people, places, and environments enables us to understand the relationship between human populations and the physical world.
  • Learners develop an understanding of spatial perspectives, and examine changes in the relationship between peoples, places and environments.
  • How do people interact with the environment and what are some of the consequences of those interactions?

Common Core Standards

English Language Arts Standards » Reading: Informational Text

Grade 9-10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.7 Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person's life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.

Grade 11-12
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

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