As America began to move into the vanguard of the industrialized world, American artists began to take pride in their native landscape, preferring thorough Realism over the Neoclassical scenes taken from ancient history that were popular in Europe. Landscapes were popular with Americans because they identified the wilderness with the biblical landscape of the Holy Land. American Romantic painters like Thomas Cole began to produce monumental American landscape scenes, starting what became known as the Hudson River School. Cole’s The Oxbow stood to celebrate the sweeping and panoramic landscape of North America while also portraying the growth of civilization. Through monumental landscape paintings, American artists found a way to prove themselves as equal or better than the European tradition as the landscape made a gave the young country a history.
The low lying landscape is cut diagonally by the rugged, stormy mountainside of Mount Holyoke creating a contrast between the violent wilderness and the pastoral landscape down below. With his own painting equipment set up upon the mountainside, Cole asserts his presence on the mountainside to take part in nature’s moral effects while also asserting the importance of the untamed wilderness toward American landscape painting. At the time The Oxbow was painted, Mount Holyoke was a popular tourist destination that included overnight accommodations for visitors. Cole decided not to include the infringement of civilization upon the landscape, but the impending storm atop the mountain seems to suggest that the landscape will eventually give way to civilization. For Cole, the landscape constituted America’s “antiquities” and therefore, places the American landscape tradition on the same plane as the European tradition.