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In the Classroom > Picturing America Lessons

19th Century American Landscape Painting

Lesson created by: Kathy Goos

Grade Level: 5 - 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 Thomas Cole was a founding member of the American landscape painting genre and helped start the Hudson River School of Landscape Painting to document the beauty of the American wilderness and landscape.
  • Students will understand that artists make choices about what to include and exclude when they paint a landscape or view.
  • Students will understand that the American landscape is in transition in the mid 19th century and that artists are thinking about and documenting the way it is changing.
  • Students will paint a watercolor landscape of their own from memory or picture.

Focusing Statement

Today we will be studying American landscape painting. We will be looking together at Thomas Cole's painting "View From Mt. Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow". Painted in 1836 for The National Academy of Design's annual exhibition, this view was a very popular tourist attraction in its day. We will be comparing Cole's painting with an etching of the same view from the same time period; Basil Hall's 1829 "View from Mount Holyoke", as well as a contemporary painting by Stephen Hannock: "The Oxbow, After Church, After Cole, Flooded, Green Light", painted in 1999.

We will focus on the choices that Thomas Cole made when he painted this landscape and whether those choices can tell us anything about his feelings and ideas about America during this period of our history.

Background Information

Thomas Cole was one of the members of a school of landscape painters called "The Hudson River School". This name was given to the group by a critic who believed the work to be old-fashioned and provincial. But the name stuck and now refers to the period of American landscape painting from 1825 to 1875, when our American national identity was very much rooted in our relationship to the land. Before 1800, a great deal of American painting was portraiture — pictures of American people. But for much of the nineteenth century the subject of American art was the painting of its landscape, first in New York and New England, and then out West. During this time, Americans were exploring their continent (Lewis and Clark), expanding their territory through purchase and war, and bitterly arguing over whether a new state would be admitted to the Union as free or slave.

The critic James Jackson Jarves observed in 1864 "The thoroughly American branch of painting, based upon the facts and tastes of the country and people, is the landscape. It surpasses all other in popular favor, and may be said to have reached the dignity of a distinct school." (The Hudson River School — Nature and the American Vision, Linda S. Ferber, The New York Historical Society, 2009, Skira Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., p.14)

Thomas Cole himself said: "(American scenery) is a subject that to every American ought to be of surpassing interest; for, whether he beholds the Hudson mingling waters with the Atlantic, explores the central wilds of this vast continent, or stands on the margin of the distant Oregon, he is still in the midst of American scenery — it is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity — all are his; and how undeserving of such a birthright, if he can turn towards it an unobserving eye, an unaffected heart!"

Examining Expressive Content

  • What do you see in this painting?
  • What differences do you see between the right and left sides of the painting?
  • Why do you think the artist painted the light so dramatically?
  • How does this painting make you feel?
  • How is this painting different from the Basil Hall etching?
  • How is it the same?
  • What else do you wonder about?
  • What did the artist choose to include in his painting?

Teaching Plan

  1. View a 15-minute preview of the video "The Natural Palette" (available at www.crizmac.com//online_catalog/store.cfm?step=display&productid=2723 this DVD is about the artists and writers in mid-19th century America)
  2. View a timeline of American History from 1801-1875. Let the students find and record the major events of the era.
  3. Explore the Thomas Cole website of the Oxbow painting with students. Click on all the tabs on top: www.explorethomascole.org/tour/items/49
  4. In smaller groups, students will compare the Cole painting to an etching done of the same view in 1829 by Basil Hall. Students will ask themselves how the two artists present the same view. What is similar? What is different? Someone in the group should record the ideas and opinions stated. Groups will share their results. www.explorethomascole.org/scrapbook/items/2756.
  5. Ask students to now consider what each painting might tell us about the artist's feelings and ideas about America. They should include information from the timeline work and website explorations as well as their observations from looking at the works of art.
  6. Students will look at two contemporary paintings of the same view: Ikuko Roth's "View From Mt. Holyoke" and Stephen Hannock's "The Oxbow, After Church, After Cole, Flooded, Green Light". The teacher will record their reactions to the modern paintings by asking these same questions:
    • What do you see?
    • How does this painting make you feel?
    • What did the artist choose to include in his/her painting?
    • What do you think these paintings can tell us about the artist's feelings and ideas about America?

Putting It All Together

Students will paint their own watercolor landscape, either from a picture or from memory.



Massachusetts Standards

    Visual Arts Learning Standards:
  • 3.4 Create 2D and 3D representational artwork from direct observation in order to develop skills of perception, discrimination, physical coordination, and memory of detail.
  • 6.3 Interpret the meanings of artistic works by explaining how the subject matter and/or form reflect the events, ideas, religions, and customs of people living at a particular time in history.
  • 6.4 Describe how artistic production can shape and be influenced by aesthetic preferences of a society.
  • 8.4 Identify American styles and genres of dance, music, theatre, or visual art and architecture, describe their sources, trace their evolution, and cite well-known artists associated with these styles.
    History Grade 5 Concepts and Skills
  • 2. Interpret timelines of events studied.
    History Grade 7 Concepts and Skills
  • 4. Distinguish between primary and secondary sources and describe how each kind of source is used in interpreting history.
    History Grade 8-12 Concepts and Skills
  • 8. Interpret the past within its own historical context rather than in terms of present-day norms and values.
  • USI.27 Explain the importance of the Transportation Revolution of the 19th century (the building of canals, roads, bridges, turnpikes, steamboats, and railroads), including the stimulus it provided to the growth of the market economy.
  • USII.2 Explain the important consequences of the Industrial Revolution: the growth of big business, environmental impact, the expansion of cities.

Common Core Standards

English Language Arts Standards » Reading: Informational Text

Grade 5

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.6 Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent.

Grade 6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.6.7 Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.

Grade 7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.7.7 Compare and contrast a text to an audio, video, or multimedia version of the text, analyzing each mediumís portrayal of the subject (e.g., how the delivery of a speech affects the impact of the words).

Grade 8
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.7 Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using different mediums (e.g., print or digital text, video, multimedia) to present a particular topic or idea.

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

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

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