Skip to next element

Alexandre Hoge: America's First Environmental Activist Painter

By Chadd Scott on

I consider Alexandre Hogue America’s first environmental activist artist. Members of the 19th century Hudson River School painters commented on deforestation and increasing industrialization in New England, but not with Hogue’s direct artistic assault on man’s assault on nature. They lacked his blunt force. His condemnation.

A 21st century reading of Hudson River School artists could miss their message about how what was once wilderness – or close to it – had succumb to farming and logging, and how that might not be a great thing one day. Their landscapes remain beautiful down through the years. Idyllic today.

No such confusion exists with Hogue (1898–1994). He expressed his feelings about man’s abuse of nature with the subtlety of a bullhorn. His landscapes are post-apocalyptic, accusatory, and have been so ever since he produced them nearly 100 years ago now.

Hogue’s artistic judgement of man’s disastrous impact on the environment began during the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl was not a natural disaster, contrary to popular belief.

Humans caused the Dust Bowl.

Deforestation across the Great Plains caused the Dust Bowl. Unsustainable farming practices caused the Dust Bowl. Sod busters. Tilling. Mechanized tractors supplanting horse drawn ploughs, allowing for farming over a greater expanse of the landscape. Replacing drought resistant native tallgrass and wildflowers – and their deep roots – with wheat and crops.

When a historic drought hit the Great Plains and much of America throughout the 1930s, lacking the modern industrial irrigation available to farmers today, crops shriveled up and died. The soil, no longer being held in place by the grasses and trees that had done the job for millennia, turned to dust and blew away. Skies were darkened as far away as Washington, D.C., convincing the federal government to take action.


Hogue witnessed this ruin firsthand, living and working in Dallas – the Southern Great Plains – during the 1930s – peak Dust Bowl.

Alexandre Hogue, Crucified Land, 1939. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Gilcrease Museum.

Alexandre Hogue, Crucified Land, 1939. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Gilcrease Museum.

On a May 2024 visit to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR, I again came face-to-face with one of Hogue’s striking Dust Bowl paintings. Crucified Land (1939) is on loan to Crystal Bridges from the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa while that institution constructs a new museum building.

Shown is a wheat field in the Texas panhandle, but it could be Oklahoma or Nebraska or Kansas. The colors are heightened, unnatural, giving the scene an eerie, otherworldly sense. The artist is telling us what has taken place here is bad, out of order.

The scene is abandoned, wrecked, as is the case with all of Hogue’s Dust Bowl paintings. Deep grooves from erosion cut channels into the landscape. With the topsoil torn up by tractors, dried out by draught, and blown away by the notorious Plains wind, the rain that did fall grooved out the land’s surface.

Hogue’s Dust Bowl paintings highlight the eroded landscape.

Hogue lays blame for this catastrophe on the skeletal plow silhouetted along the horizon. The scarecrow recalls the crucifix. Man’s sin against nature. The land sacrificed.

Masterpieces from Hogue’s Dust Bowl erosion series can be found at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., the Dallas Museum of Art, and perhaps the most striking, at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa.

Hogue’s Big Miss

Alexandre Hogue hit the nail on the head placing blame for the Dust Bowl and ecological collapse across the Great Plains at the foot of man. His Dust Bowl paintings feel prescient in our current era beset by human-caused climate change and biodiversity collapse.

Another of his paintings at Crystal Bridges, however, shows where Hogue missed the mark. Badly.

Pecos Escarpment (1937) – painted during the Dust Bowl as he was producing his erosion paintings – depicts a brilliant west Texas landscape. Sunny. Look at that bright, blue sky – a classic artistic metaphor for optimism and good tidings. We see a modern car, nice houses, and petroleum infrastructure – containment vats and an oil derrick.

The artwork’s wall label reads in part, “During the Great Depression, many Americans saw the oil industry as a promising source of development for the national economy. In Pecos Escarpment, Alexandre Hogue envisioned nature, the oil industry, and human habitation uniting within landscape.”

Alexandre Hogue, Pecos Escarpment, 1937. Egg tempera on cradled panel. On view at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Alexandre Hogue, Pecos Escarpment, 1937. Egg tempera on cradled panel. On view at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.


Hogue’s hopeful painting predicting a harmonious relationship between oil, man, and nature couldn’t have proven more misguided.

In the first half of Hogue’s long life – he nearly made it to 100 – petroleum was a godsend for America. It provided electricity, fueled cars and then planes, helped win World War II, and is largely responsible for creating the highest standard of living in the world. In Texas and Oklahoma, the artist’s stomping grounds, it created fabulous wealth.

That worm began turning in the second half of Hogue’s life. The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill which sparked Earth Day. Smog from car exhaust choking the nation before the catalytic converter. Acid rain from fossil fuel driven power plants destroying forests, lakes, and streams across the country. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 destroying Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

The term “Global Warming” was entering the public consciousness when Hogue died in 1994, but the worst of its effects were yet to come. They still are. Droughts. Floods. Forest Fires. Extreme heat. Humans appear to have broken the planet’s climate system and the fault rests squarely upon our addiction to fossil fuels for energy.

Those seeds were sown in Texas and Oklahoma where the supply of oil was rich and so too became the people who could get it out of the ground. Little thought was given to the long-term impacts, and what dangers were discovered were suppressed by the oil companies to continuing fueling our cars and buildings and their profits.

As insightful as Hogue’s Dust Bowl paintings feel 90 years on, Pecos Escarpment feels equally naïve. Hogue wasn’t a scientist, he was an artist, meaning he was a careful observer. What he could see – the Dust Bowl – he depicted brilliantly, accurately; what he couldn’t see – the future damage caused by oil – he misread totally.

An elderly Hogue was surely proud of his Dust Bowl paintings, I wonder what he thought about Pecos Escarpment as the balance of petroleum’s benefits and harms on the earth began cascading in the other direction?


previous article

Cannupa Hanksa Luger Brings Bison Sculpture to Manhattan

next article

Remembering the Colorful Life and Art of Benjamin Harjo Jr.