Thomas Cole, River in the Catskills (1843)_Left
Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream (1899)_Right
One can see an emergence of man’s relation to nature in the forefront of these 19th Century paintings from Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Winslow Homer (1836-1910). Although these works span a half-century gap, and do not necessarily carry the same agenda, their powerful representation enlightens a period of time that was developing a strong perspective of what was to be, or not to be, considered “nature”.
American landscape painter Thomas Cole was born in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, during a time considered the Age of Romanticism, and as such his works reflect the endangerment of an environment that was quickly disappearing due to the revolution. In fact, he was the founder of the Hudson River School through which a discourse on man’s coexistence with nature was established through landscape paintings. In the painting above titled River in the Catskills, Cole captures a mid-19th Century portrayal of a natural environment up in the Catskills of New York that is being encroached upon by the bellowing steam engine off in the distance. Cole’s use of this vision to subtly overwhelm the viewer with a vast scene of vegetation and open land accompanied by this ‘foreign invader’ begins to illustrate a disposition on the manipulation and changing of the “natural” environment.
As for the second painting titled The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer, nature is used in a slightly different way, and for a much different reason than Cole, but ultimately addresses a similar idea. In this scene a man is depicted alone at sea after his battle with the hurricane off in the distance. With the sharks circling, the rough waters, and the looming storm, the message is clearly one of man against nature. However, when looking deeper into Homer’s personal background alongside this painting one can see nature is being used as an analogy for inevitable mortality.
Both of these paintings speak to a sensibility involving the notion that man and nature are at odds with one another. Given that the popularity of these two 19th Century painters’ spans over an immeasurable audience, these ideas of “nature” versus man truly may have become engrained into society as reality over perception. Thus looking ahead to the 23rd Century, an interest develops as to what ideas of nature may be instilled upon future generations from the line of thought produced through our Century…