Thomas Cole: A Closer Look

Watch a video that reveals the findings of a technical examination conducted by The Met's conservation team on Thomas Cole's The Oxbow (1836) and The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–36). This study uncovered that the two works, although quite different in appearance, are connected in surprising ways.

Featured objects:
Thomas Cole (American, 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, New York, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1908 (08.228)

Thomas Cole (American, 1801–1848). The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire, 1835–36. Oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 76 in. (130.2 x 193 cm). New-York Historical Society, Gift of The New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts

Produced in association with Thomas Cole's Journey: Atlantic Crossings, on view at The Met Fifth Avenue January 30 through May 13, 2018.


In the winter of 1836, in his Catskill, New York, studio, Thomas Cole was at work on two canvases of the exact same size. One canvas was intended for The Oxbow. The other for The Consummation of Empire. Although the works are different in appearance, technical examinations reveal surprising connections.

Tiny paint samples show how Cole prepared the canvases with very different grounds. For The Oxbow, Cole used a thin white ground and a soft pinkish-orange priming suitable for a landscape. For Consummation, he used a thick white ground and an intense orange priming suitable for architecture in bright midday sun.

An infrared reflectogram of The Oxbow, at right, uncovers extensive underdrawing. The underdrawing is highlighted here in white. Cole used this canvas to sketch his initial ideas for Consummation. Details correspond to architectural motifs in the finished painting.

Cole painted over the architectural drawings to finish The Oxbow in April 1836. He then turned his attention to finishing Consummation, which he completed in May 1836.

The paintings are not only physically linked but also thematically connected. In his five-part series, Cole presents the rise of a great civilization, and its decline brought about by the human pursuit of wealth and power at the expense of nature.

The Savage State, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, The Consummation of Empire, Destruction, Desolation.

Cole expressed a similar warning in The Oxbow. He juxtaposes wilderness on the left with cultivated lands on the right and evidence of deforestation on the distant mountain. The finished work acts as a manifesto to the American public to preserve the unspoiled wilderness.

Director Kate Farrell
Producer Melissa Bell
Editor Stephanie Wuertz

Technical Examination: Dorothy Mahon

Infrared Reflectography: Evan Read

Images courtesy of:

Thomas Cole National Historic Site

Digital image created by Oppenheimer Editions


© 2018 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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