The Hunter's Return
Oil on canvas
40 1/8 x 60 1/2 in.
signed and dated, l.c.: T.Cole \ 1845
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas
In this idyllic valley scene, a settler family has carved out space in the woods for a small farm. The painting suggests that they live in a bountiful relationship with nature: Father and son stride out of the woods carrying the prize of a successful hunt, and fresh cabbages button the slope descending toward the lake.
By the time Cole completed this work, industrial development had already diminished the forests of the northeastern United States. From his home in Catskill, New York, the artist witnessed deforestation from railroad construction and leather tanning, and he lamented what he called the “ravages of the axe.” Perhaps The Hunter’s Return is a response to these environmental changes. Portraying a small cabin nestled in the woods, the picture offers a nostalgic rendering of agrarian rather than industrial ideals, the stumps in the foreground symbolizing both Euro-American progress and nature’s fragility.
—Text taken from the Carter Handbook (2023)
Wild Spaces, Open Seasons: Hunting and Fishing in American ArtOctober 7, 2017–January 7, 2018
Wild Spaces, Open Seasons brings together iconic works that explore outdoor subjects from the early 19th century to World War II, exploring American artists’ fascination with depicting a communion with nature that was receding in the face of industrialization.
From Remington to O’Keeffe: The Carter’s Greatest HitsOctober 6, 2018–March 22, 2019
During the renovation, this exhibition features highlights from the permanent collection, including paintings, photographs, and sculptures, by some of America’s most renowned artists.
This large-scale (40 1/8 inches tall, 60 ½ inches wide), scenic view sits horizontally in a gold, ornately carved, wood frame approximately 7 inches wide. The top two-thirds of the painting focuses on an area of the wilderness during the fall as the sun sets off in the distant left behind the rugged landscape. In the bottom third of the painting, Cole captures a domestic scene.
The action happens at the bottom of the canvas. Two men, a little left of center, are in profile and walking toward the scene depicted on the right side of the canvas, holding a stick over their shoulders between them that holds a slain deer hanging from the stick by its bound legs. A clean-shaven young man is on the left end of the stick and an older man with a full, brown beard holds the right side. The young man holds a rifle in his left hand, and his right hand grips the stick with the deer. The man on the right holds his hat in his left hand and waves it in the air his at family who appear in the bottom right of the canvas.
A little boy in a white shirt with a long rifle resting on his left shoulder has his back to the viewers, as well as his dad and brother, as he leads the way across a bridge made out of long, narrow logs on the way to their garden, log cabin, and the other members of the family. A younger sister looks in the direction of the young boy while hugging a black-and-white dog. A mother wearing a pink dress and white apron holds up a baby dressed in white, just a few inches up and to the left of the young girl and dog. An older girl stands in the shadows of the doorway of the cabin, and a black dog is to the right of her, trying to sneak a piece of meat off of a bench that sits along the front of the cabin.
The scene includes a small vegetable garden that has four or five rows of green crops growing, with a colorful patch of yellows, reds, and whites in one of the corners closest to the viewer. Immediately next to the garden is the cabin. The front of the single-story cabin is angled toward the right side of the scene; the spine of the roof runs left and right, and a chimney sticks out on the far right of the cabin. A faint thread of smoke leaves the top of the chimney. Sunlight highlights the left side, which has two small windows. A covered porch is visible off the backside of the cabin, and the front of the cabin is completely covered in shadow. Windows flank the door where the older girl stands.
Beautiful foliage, majestic mountains, and sky fill most of the painting. Bright red and orange leaves on the shorter trees pop in the dark clusters of dense forest. Orange, yellow, and red leaves on bushes and trees frame the cabin. In the middle of the canvas, back in the distance, there is a lake surrounded by large rocks, fall foliage, and hills that lead to mountains. The tallest point of the tan, rocky mountain angles up to the left. Several tall trees on the left and one evergreen on the right pierce the blue sky that is filled with scattered, fluffy white clouds. The sun is not visible behind the trees and mountains on the left, but it illuminates the left side of the tallest mountain peak, parts of the garden, and the house in the bottom right of the painting.
Below all of the action, along the bottom of the canvas in the foreground, hints of hostility toward the earth are suggested by the multiple tall and short stumps, two large chopped-down tree trunks, and the hunted deer.
Thomas Cole’s audiences adored his landscape paintings, which allowed him to use American scenery as a way of storytelling. In 1844, Cole was commissioned to paint a major artwork for an important New York patron, which is when he painted The Hunter’s Return.