Thomas Cole is one of the most important figures in nineteenth century American Art. The subject of emulation by the founders of the Hudson River School of painting, his landscapes are among the most highly revered works of their kind. They are often dramatic in scale, majestic in subject matter and logically composed.
Just as Cole was influential to the myriad painters who later traveled to the Hudson River Valley, his own artistic theory was shaped by the English culture into which he was born, in 1801. His early works, like Two Hunters in a Landscape (painted circa 1824-25), are informed by Cole's own interpretation of the late eighteenth-century writings of English Romantic poet William Gilpin, who formulated "picturesque theory", a "mode of viewing the world that depended on qualities, discernible in nature, that stimulated the mind and imagination." (E.A. Powell, Thomas Cole, New York, 1990, p. 22) Earl Powell notes, "As a body of landscape theory, the picturesque was one of the most important and influential English contributions to the education of American vision." (Thomas Cole, p. 22) By association, as a primary American practitioner of Gilpin's philosophy, Cole became the most important and influential American landscape artist of the first half of the nineteenth century.
"Gilpin characterized the qualities of the picturesque as those that would look well in a picture and that emphasized nature in an uncivilized or uncultivated state. He believed rough, tactile surfaces were picturesque and that these aspects of the natural world could be enhanced through vibrant chiaroscuro effects. In other words, he isolated the visual qualities of nature and taught that those qualities, although they might never be found all together in a natural vista, could be located in several different aspects and united in a single composition by a gifted artist." (Thomas Cole, p. 23) Geographic and natural details of the scene in the present work are indeed rendered in minute detail, underscoring Cole's rigid adherence to Gilpin's principles. The central tree's knots, roots and bark; the rocks dotting the path; and the patches of leaves throughout the work, all are examples of these picturesque surfaces that Gilpin's theory names. These carefully drawn natural details are, as we might expect given Cole's dedication to demonstrating the picturesque, illuminated and set in contrast to the rest of the work by Cole's confident chiaroscuro.
The present work depicts two hunters in a wood, pursuing prey. One of the hunters, his hand to his ear, listens intently, perhaps nervously, for an animal in the brush; the other carries his rifle over one shoulder. The figures seem at home and relaxed in the foreground--the space they inhabit is warmly lit, enclosed by the various rock outcroppings and trees. But the landscape Cole paints is expansive, stretching back for miles to show a dramatic peak visible, just barely, through the bluish haze that Cole gives the background, in a masterful handling of the effects of atmosphere. The warm light that bathes the foreground is complemented by this cooler, more diffuse haziness, a contrast that deepens the picture, allowing the landscape to reach back towards the horizon line. The river in the middle ground is still, providing a perfect mirror for the trees on its banks, enhancing the picture's serenity. Rivers were the subject of, or at least the context for, many of Cole's works, including his exquisite 1836 canvas, The Oxbow (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) depicting the meandering Connecticut River. In fact, Powell tells us that, "Gilpin believed that the most worthwhile place to search for picturesque scenery was along the banks of rivers. For Thomas Cole, the Hudson offered rich opportunities, and his 1825 sketching trip provided him with the quintessential picturesque experience. Cole's work progressed rapidly after 1825, and during these years he produced some of most important landscapes." (Thomas Cole, p. 23)
Painting from an elevated position, Cole is able to compose his canvas in a remarkably logical manner. The rough road represents the first of two diagonals, leading from the lower right corner through the lower center, where a bright beam of sunlight illuminates the picturesque rock outcropping and knotted tree. From there, the line bends over a roll in the landscape and into the darkness at the left edge, where its trajectory is met by another diagonal. This second one is in the form of the river, which winds its way past the hills and to the canvas's upper right. These intersecting diagonals, taken together, work to unite the distinct regions of Cole's picture, from the front of the picture to the rear, helping us to visually understand the work. Of course, Cole's compositional techniques work in tandem with his execution of picturesque theory, the isolation and illumination of aspects of nature's rough-hewn beauty, to help create a consolidated, concise version of the American landscape.
Matthew Baigell writes about Cole's tendency towards intersecting diagonals, "this structural device adds emotional wallop, especially in the early works, because it invariably overwhelms the few foreground horizontals." (Baigell, Thomas Cole, New York, 1981, p. 13) This is significant because the expressive weight of a work by Cole can be seen to echo the feeling one would experience when they are "for the first time being catapulted directly into the American wilderness." (Baigell, Thomas Cole, p. 11)