Teaching guide: Thomas Cole, The Hunter’s Return

Cole feared for the American landscape as his country expanded westward.

Thomas Cole, The Hunter’s Return, 1845, oil on canvas (Amon Carter Museum of American Art). Speakers: Dr. Maggie Adler, Curator, Amon Carter Museum of American Art and Dr. Beth Harris

Thomas Cole’s The Hunter’s Return (1845) will be valuable for the study of:

  • American and national identity and the American landscape
  • Pre-Civil War American history
  • Manifest Destiny
  • Industrialization in the mid-nineteenth century
  • Transcendentalism
  • The Hudson River School
  • American Romanticism

Learning objectives

By the end of this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Analyze Thomas Cole’s The Hunter’s Return as a primary document that advocates specific points of view
  • Look closely at the painting, use the tools of visual analysis to better understand the work
  • Apply the tools of visual analysis to support an interpretation of the artwork
  • Discuss the relationship of the work to its historical context
  • Identify and elaborate on certain key issues related to American and national identity prompted by an example of American art

1. Look closely at the painting

Look closely at Thomas Cole’s The Hunter’s Return (zoomable image, available for download for teaching)


Questions to ask:

  • What are your first impressions of this landscape painting?
  • What has the artist included in the scene?
  • Does this landscape look like a specific location? What gives you that impression?
  • Do the landscape and/or other elements in the painting seem idealized (more perfect than reality)? What gives you that impression?
  • Describe how this painting illustrates the impact of man on nature. Be as specific as possible.
  • How has the artist organized the painting’s elements—the landscape, the cottage, and the figures—to lead our eye through the image? How this composition help to tell a story?

2. Watch the video

The video “Wilderness, settlement, and the forming of an American identity” that features Thomas Cole’s The Hunter’s Return is only six minutes in length. Ideally, the video should provide an active rather than a passive classroom experience. You can pause the video to respond to student questions, to underscore or develop issues, to define vocabulary, or to look closely at parts of the painting that are being discussed. Key points, a self-diagnostic quiz, and downloadable high-resolution photographs with details of The Hunter’s Return are provided to support the video.

3. Read about the painting and its historical context

Most Americans were busy settling nature in the nineteenth century, too busy in fact to look up from their work of extending the nation from “sea to shining sea.” When they did look up, they found themselves surrounded by a chorus of voices exhorting them to labor less and to seek meaning in the landscape instead. Writers like Emerson and Thoreau called upon mid-nineteenth-century audiences to treat nature as a treasure. The seemingly untouched quality of the nation’s wildernesses distinguished the United States from Europe. The landscape came increasingly to embody what Americans most valued in themselves: an “unstoried” past, an ”Adamic” freedom, an openness to the future, a fresh lease on life. In time, Americans came to think of themselves as “nature’s nation.” And yet one of the paradoxes of American history, as painters like Thomas Cole noted, lay in the unresolved tension between the subduing of the wilderness and the honoring of it. That tension is still alive with us today, in the competing voices of environmentalists and advocates of development.

Steeped in European theories of art, Cole insisted on the “great and serious” calling of the artist. Unlike other early landscapists in America, he reacted strongly against any notion that his pictures should be literal transcriptions of what the eye sees. He believed instead in a “higher style of landscape,” a way of imbuing the landscape with “moral and imaginative” power. He achieved that by sorting through and then combining sketches made outdoors into a built “composition” at his studio. Landscape composition for Cole was never a “dead imitation” of nature, but an imaginative leap into those “invisible” meanings that lie unseen on the other side of nature. He proclaimed that, “If the imagination is shackled, and nothing is described but what we see, seldom will anything truly great be produced in either Painting or Poetry.”

From Angela L. Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J. Wolf, and Jennifer L. Roberts, American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (Washington University Libraries, 2018), pp. 241, 254, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (available for free download)

4. Discussion questions

  1. Compare Thomas Cole’s The Hunter’s Return with John Gast’s American Progress. How do these two works suggest different perspectives on the westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century?
  2. In your neighborhood, do commercial, industrial spaces balance or overwhelm nature (or the opposite)? Do you think you would have reacted the way Cole did when he saw nature being transformed by man in the mid-nineteenth century, or would you have welcomed that change?

5. Research question

Opening a newspaper today, you are likely to read about political tensions regarding the development of government-controlled land for oil, gas, and coal—the energy needed to fuel the modern United States economy. Using one example, describe the views of both environmentalists and those advocating development.

6. Bibliography

Manifest Destiny (from American Yawp)

The Homestead Act (from the Library of Congress)

A Brief History of Nature and the American Consciousness (from the University of Virginia)

Industrialization and Conflict in America: 1840–1875 (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History)

Thomas Cole (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History)

The Hudson River School (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History)

The Erie Canal (from the Digital Public Library of America)

Linda Ferber and the New York Historical Society, The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision (Skira/Rizzoli, 2009).

Andrew Wilton and Tim Barringer, American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880 (Princeton University Press, 2002).

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.