Thomas Cole - The Course of Empire
There is the moral of all human tales;
‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory - when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption - barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page.
— Andrew Wilton and Tim Barringer. American Sublime, Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880, Princeton University Press, 2002. (Cole read Lord Byron’s 1818 work, Childe Harold, and cited these lines in regard to his series.)
The Course of Empire is a five-part series of paintings created by Thomas Cole in the years 1833-36. It is notable in part for reflecting popular American sentiments of the times, when many saw pastoralism as the ideal phase of human civilization, fearing that empire would lead to gluttony and inevitable decay. (Wikipedia) “Cole captured a theory of imperial rise and fall to which most people remain in thrall to to this day. Each of the five imagined scenes depicts the mouth of a great river beneath a rocky outcrop.” (source: Niall Ferguson, Complexity and Collapse, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2010)
"In a letter to his patron Luman Reed, Cole wrote enthusiastically of an idea for his first large-scale allegorical series:
A series of pictures might be painted that should illustrate the History of a natural scene, as well as be an Epitome of Man—showing the natural changes of Landscape & those effected by man in his progress from Barbarism to Civilization, to Luxury, the Vicious state or state of destruction and to the state of Ruin & Desolation.
The philosophy of my subject is drawn from the history of the past, wherein we see how nations have risen from the Savage state to that of Power & Glory & then fallen & become extinct…
— Cole to Luman Reed, 18 September 1833, NYSL; quoted in Foshay, Mr. Luman Reed’s Picture Gallery, 130. (See more: Explore Thomas Cole)
The Savage State
"In the first, The Savage State, the valley from the shore opposite the crag, in the dim light of a dawning stormy day. A hunter clad in skins hastens through the wilderness, pursuing a deer; canoes paddle up the river; on the far shore can be seen a clearing cluster of wigwams around a fire, the nucleus of the city that is to be. The visual references are those of Native American life.
The Arcadian or Pastoral State
In the second painting, The Arcadian or Pastoral State , the sky has cleared and we are in the fresh morning of a day in spring or early summer. The viewpoint has shifted further down the river, as the crag with the boulder is now on the left-hand side of the painting; a forked peak can be seen in the distance beyond it. Much of the wilderness has given way to settled lands, with plowed fields and lawns visible. Various activities go on in the background: plowing, boat-building, herding sheep, dancing; in the foreground, an old man sketches what may be a geometrical problem with a stick. On a bluff on the near side of the river, a megalithic temple has been built, and smoke (presumably from sacrifices) arises from it. The images reflect an idealized, pre-urban ancient Greece.
The Consummation of Empire
The third painting, The Consummation of Empire, shifts the viewpoint to the opposite shore, approximately the site of the clearing in the first painting. It is noontide of a glorious summer day. Both sides of the river valley are now covered in colonnaded marble structures, whose steps run down into the water. The megalithic temple seems to have been transformed into a huge domed structure dominating the river-bank. The mouth of the river is guarded by two pharoses, and ships with lateen sails go out to the sea beyond. A joyous crowd throngs the balconies and terraces as a scarlet-robed king or victorious general crosses a bridge connecting the two sides of the river in a triumphal procession. In the foreground an elaborate fountain gushes. The overall look suggests the height of ancient Rome.
The Destruction of Empire
The fourth painting, The Destruction of Empire , has almost the same point of view as the third, though the artist has stepped back a bit to allow a wider scene of the action, and moved almost to the center of the river. The action is, of course, the sack and destruction of the city, in the course of a tempest seen in the distance. It seems that a fleet of enemy warriors has overthrown the city’s defenses, sailed up the river, and is busily firing the city and killing and raping its inhabitants. The bridge across which the triumphal procession had crossed is broken; a makeshift crossing strains under the weight of soldiers and refugees. Columns are broken, fire breaks from the upper floors of a palace on the river bank. In the foreground a statue of some venerable hero stands headless, still striding forward into the uncertain future, reminiscent of the hunter in the first painting. The scene is perhaps suggested by the Vandal Sack of Rome (455).
The fifth painting, Desolation, shows the results, years later. We view the remains of the city in the livid light of a dying day. The landscape has begun to return to wilderness, and no human beings are to be seen; but the remnants of their architecture emerge from beneath a mantle of trees, ivy, and other overgrowth. The broken stumps of the pharoses loom in the background. The arches of the shattered bridge, and the columns of the temple are still visible; a single column looms in the foreground, now a nesting place for birds. The sunrise of the first painting is mirrored here by a moonrise, a pale light reflecting in the ruin-choked river while the standing pillar reflects the last rays of sunset.
Sic transit gloria mundi (“thus passes the glory of the world”).” — (Source: Cedar Grove - The Thomas Cole National Historic Site). Collection: New-York Historical Society
"Conceived in the mid-1830s, Cole’s great pentaptych has a clear message: all empires, no matter how magnificent, are condemned to decline and fall." - Niall Ferguson, Complexity and Collapse, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2010)
☞ Thomas Cole - The Voyage of Life
☞ Niall Ferguson, Empires on the Edge of Chaos, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2010
☞ Noah Raford, Collapse Dynamics: Phase Transitions in Complex Social Systems, MIT