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And, as Cole scholar William Cronon has suggested,"in the lazy turn of the great oxbow--echoed by the circling birds at the edge of the storm-- we can make out the shape of a question mark: where is all this headed?" The concerns expressed in Cole's painting reflected the debate among Americans.In this Thomas Cole painting of 1836 entitled The Oxbow (The Connecticut River near Northampton), the tension between wilderness and garden, savagery and civilization, is recorded visually as European conventions of landscape painting are employed to comment on the state of the physical place of America.
Although these men displayed a genuine curiosity about their environment, they were eager to discover what resources of economic value lay in the land for their use in building a civilized society.
Northern strides toward industry and technology led by Franklin, and Southern emphasis on the idealized agrarian society of gentlemen's farms espoused by Jefferson shared a desire to tame and contain the wilderness by imposing upon it a constructed landscape of human civility and divine order.
Jefferson's interest in taxonomy was supported in Pennsylvania by the Philosophical Society of Benjamin Franklin, a group of scientists that included anthropologist Charles Wilson Peale, botanist Benjamin Rush, and chemist/physicist Joseph Priestley.
Jefferson and the men of this society often compared notes and shared the results of individual experiments to assess and quantify the land and its contents.
A few voices of dissent expressed concern over the ways growth and progress ravaged the landscape, and many were disturbed by the imposition of the smoke and noise from the railroad.
As the trains and factories of technology spread and the attitudes toward nature shifted to consider the Romanticist viewpoints, the once pastoral promises of the Hudson River paintings were invoked with wry irony.
Andrew Melrose expressed the disadvantages of technology in his painting Westward the Star of Empire Takes Its Way--near Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Although the painting was commissioned to commemorate the arrival of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad at the Missouri River, this painting shows that the price of progress is paid by the environment.
Robert Fulton's steamboat, first launched in 1807, and the development of Eastern railways represented the first intrusions of what Leo Marx would call "the machine in the garden." With these early stirrings of the industrial age to come, Americans began to examine their relationship to the land around them.
The birth of the Hudson River school of American painting, signalled by George Innes's The Lackawanna Valley, married wilderness with civilization in harmonious depictions of pastoral rural towns gleaming with the prosperity brought to them by the broad-based economy of both agriculture and technology.