In The Hunter's Return painted in 1845, Thomas Cole used the medium of oil on canvas to create this large painting of 154 x 102 cm. The painting in which Cole depicts the American scenery of the 1840s shows his attention to levels of detail rarely seen before in American art. Cole was well aware of the effect the period of Westward expansion would have on the American landscape and in his work he strived to not only paint the landscape but also to impart a deeper message about the cost of the expansion of civilization on the pristine environment.
Thomas Cole displays his excellent technical skills in the painting of this sun-filled valley where it seems that the family is living in perfect harmony with nature. His painting of the clouds, mountains, the lake and the waterfall displays his attention to detail but also his view that his paintings should not only be a literal depiction of what the artist sees but it should be what he termed as a "higher style of the landscape" which convey a deeper message. To him, as a landscape artist, the message was about the tension that exists between the taming or subduing of the wilderness and the honouring of it.
The tension mentioned above, exist here in the pristine nature is contrasted with the settled family scene around the cottage and the vegetable garden. This tension is also visibly portrayed in the painting with the large logs in the foreground representing the large number of trees that were felled to allow the settlement of the family. The painting features the good fortune of father and son returning from a successful hunting trip being greeted by the family which stands in contrast with the deeper message that the settlement and advancing of civilization across North America extracts a hefty price from nature.
Thomas Cole with his love of nature was the driving force behind what was known as the Hudson River School, a group of the finest and most distinguished landscape artists in the American art history. He set about to enable young artists who shared his passion for landscape painting like Frederic Edwin Church, whom he allowed to study from his studio for two years while guiding him. Others include Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran who formed part of the Hudson River School. Everybody agrees that any study of this influential group and its influence on American art should always start with the paintings of Thomas Cole as it was from those paintings that the influence on this period flowed.