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Art Museum's Inaugural Exhibition to Feature Thomas Cole's 1836 Painting The Oxbow

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August 30, 2002

Art Museum's Inaugural Exhibition to Feature Thomas Cole's 1836 Painting The Oxbow


Photograph ©1995 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Thomas Cole's View from Mt. Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow), 1836, oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1908. The Oxbow is included in the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum's exhibition Changing Prospects: The View from Mount Holyoke, which examines the historical significance of the College's namesake, Mount Holyoke.

In 1836, Thomas Cole (1825–1870), a leader of America's first school of landscape painting, the Hudson River school, made sketches from the summit of Mount Holyoke, the mountain after which the College is named. The resulting painting, View from Mt. Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow), reveals a valley of cultivated plains edged by forested wilderness, a scene that was in the artist's day "the most famous landscape in America," writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder. Cole's painting, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will be the centerpiece of Changing Prospects: The View from Mount Holyoke, an exhibition on display at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum September 3–December 8. An opening reception, at which Kidder will be the featured guest, will take place Friday, September 27, at 5 pm at the museum. The reception is part of a weekend celebration that will be held September 27–29 to mark the reopening of the art building and museum after the completion of a renovation and expansion project that began in the spring of last year. Upcoming issues of CSJ will feature details of celebration events.


Mount Holyoke College archives and special collections

Mountain Day seniors, 1912

The first major exhibition in the renovated museum, Changing Prospects will bring together approximately one hundred objects to tell the story of Mount Holyoke as a cultural icon, destination, and subject for writers and artists over a period of two centuries. "Because Cole's Oxbow was such a well-known painting," says museum director Marianne Doezema, "many people think that it created the reputation for the mountain. In fact, Cole came to Mount Holyoke because it was a national monument. When Mary Lyon named her school after the mountain, she was naming it after something very well known. That's not so well appreciated today."

During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the idea of travel for the purpose of enjoying natural scenery made its way to America from the Continent, and increasing numbers of tourists began to wind their way to the top of Mount Holyoke. "Just as in Europe, there were guide books to the U.S. that provided information about taking the ‘Grand Tour,' " says Doezema. "You would go to Boston, New York, Niagara Falls, Mount Washington, and Mount Holyoke." Next to Niagara Falls, Mount Holyoke was the most popular tourist destination in the country. The 1867 edition of Burt's Illustrated Guide of the Connecticut Valley, noting that some 20,000 people visited the mountain in a single season, effused: "[Mount Holyoke] is a favorite place of resort. The view is beautiful and picturesque, and is pronounced by distinguished travelers to be the finest in America."

While Mount Holyoke stands at just under one thousand feet, "it was important," says Doezema, "because the prospect afforded from the summit provided a combination of untouched wilderness, which in the nineteenth century was seen as a manifestation of God's power, and cultivation, which represented the progress of civilization —beautifully combined in one view." Yet the prospect was appreciated well before nineteenth-century Romanticists canonized it. The first surviving recorded account from the summit is that of the Reverend Paul Coffin. In 1760, the Maine preacher wrote, "The view here far exceeds all I have ever had before," and rhapsodized over the sight of "hundreds of acres of wheat, rye, peas, flax, oats, corn, etc." To Coffin's eye, the view resembled "a beautiful garden."

By 1821, the mountaintop had its first shelter—a small cabin—put up through the efforts of a group of citizens from Northampton. From the 1830s and into the '40s the little cabin offered not only shelter but also "refreshments of every kind." Newlyweds John and Fanny French bought the thriving business in 1849, replacing the cabin with a small hotel and constructing the first tramway in New England, which would convey visitors from the carriage road to the summit.

It was around this time that Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts visited the mountain. The statesman was impressed: "I have been all over England, have traveled through the highlands of Scotland; I have passed up and down the Rhine. I have ascended Mt. Blanc and stood on Campagna in Rome; but have never seen anything so surprisingly lovely as this." Sumner's is one of many nineteenth-century paeans to Mount Holyoke, which attracted famous visitors from both Europe and America. Literary visitors included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Henry James. At the height of its popularity in the second half of the nineteenth century, Swedish opera star Jenny Lind came and christened the region "the Paradise of America."

Painters were drawn to paradise, as well. Cole's Oxbow—the name refers to the sharp bend in the river—is the most famous depiction, but there are countless others. When Wall Street baron John Dwight bought the summit hotel from the Frenches late in the nineteenth century, he commissioned David John Gue to portray the mountain. Gue's serene, pastoral View of Mount Holyoke (1890) is today part of the art museum's permanent collection and is featured in the exhibition.

Also part of the exhibition is an assortment of paintings related by a curious feature. "One of the vehicles for getting the image of Mount Holyoke distributed nationally, and indeed internationally," says Doezema, "was a little print by William Henry Bartlett. Many thousands of Bartlett's prints were produced, and the print was published in a book called American Scenery." So great was the demand for images of Mount Holyoke that many artists painted it from the Bartlett print without ever having visited the mountain. Several of these sight-unseen renderings will be featured as well.

After the turn of the century, the mountain's fame subsided. The hotel suffered a decline with the advent of the automobile, which made many more kinds of travel experiences possible. In 1916, local manufacturer and philanthropist Joseph Skinner bought the Holyoke Range and the hotel. He immediately logged all of the chestnut trees, which were afflicted with disease, replacing them with 51,000 white pines. Skinner improved the hotel and revived the summit railroad, but no amount of sprucing up could recover the renown Mount Holyoke had enjoyed during its heyday. In 1940, Skinner donated the Summit House and 375 acres of land to the state of Massachusetts, creating Joseph Allen Skinner State Park.

After years of neglect, the Summit House was extensively renovated in 1988. Today artists are again among the many thousands who visit each year. Reflecting this, contemporary views of Mount Holyoke will also be among the highlights of the exhibition. Stephen Hannock's The Oxbow, After Church, After Cole, Flooded, 1979–94 (Flooded River for the Matriarchs, E. and M. Mongan) and Alfred Leslie's Holyoke Range, Near Oxbow, Easthampton, Massachusetts will hang in proximity to Cole's masterpiece. An array of prints, photographs, memorabilia, and other historical material will flesh out the tale of one of the nineteenth century's greatest cultural icons.

Accompanying the exhibition Changing Prospects: The View from Mount Holyoke will be a book of the same name with essays by Ethan Carr, Susan Danly, and Martha Hoppin, and a foreword by Mount Holyoke English professor Christopher Benfey.

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