Greco's Ghosts

Art. History. Culture.

You Oughta Know: Thomas Cole’s Empire

Actually, many of you already know. But if you don’t know, you oughta. You really, really oughta. So this post is just to make sure you do. Anyone who knows anything about the history of American art knows Thomas Cole. If you don’t know Thomas Cole, you should not consider yourself an American. Well, maybe that’s going a bit too far, but seriously, this shit is epic.

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) was born in England but brought up in the United States. He was a co-founder of the Hudson River school of American art, a movement which took place during the mid-nineteenth century. Hudson River artists were known for their realistic and highly detailed paintings of American landscapes. Thomas Cole had many such works, but it isn’t the landscape painting that concerns us for this article. This article is about his series of works known as The Course of the Empire.

The Course of the Empire is a five part series of paintings dramatically describing the states that the cycle of a major empire experiences. Each of the five paintings contains the same landscape, recognizable by the repeated mountain peak in the far right background, in which surroundings have been altered according to the current state of the empire. Of course, the biggest empire that comes to mind when looking at these works is the Roman empire, but others have followed this cycle or will follow it in different scales. The series conveys a powerful metaphor that can apply to something as large as the vastness of the human race to something as small as one’s own life history. Whatever the scale, the message remains consistent. If you’ve never seen these paintings before, after reading this you’re going to want to hang this epic series of works on your wall in chronological order. At the very least, they make great desktop wallpaper backgrounds for your computer.

The Course of the Empire: The Savage State is painting # 1. It shows the landscape at its genesis, with storm clouds clearing toward the right just enough to reveal the first view of the mountain peak. Rain still falls from the thick, dark clouds while a glow of sunlight shines through the landscape at the left side. Rays of light touch just enough of the landscape to illuminate it’s savage state, suggesting an overall brand new birth of life. The state of this land, along with its inhabitants, a few small figure groups dressed in rags who dwell in man-made shacks, is primitive and innocent of corruption.

Click image to enlarge. Thomas Cole (American), The Course of the Empire: The Savage State, 1833-6, oil on canvas, 99.7 x 160.7 cm, New York Historical Society, New York.

Click image to enlarge. Thomas Cole (American), The Course of the Empire: The Savage State, 1833-6, oil on canvas, 99.7 x 160.7 cm, New York Historical Society, New York.

The Course of the Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State is painting # 2. The “savage” or “primitive” humans of the land have now made a few advancements in agriculture. The landscape is now plowed with a few fields and lush growth and greenery covers everything, including the mountain peak. New trees have grown and others have been cut down. A temple can even be seen in the distance with smoke billowing above it, probably alluding to the development of a more organized and sophisticated religious system. As the empire becomes more advanced, the land and its people thrive in its Arcadian state. Also important to note is the concept of Aracadia, if you’re not familiar with it. Though it was an actual city in Greece, Arcadia was primarily a concept of a classical ideal in the arts. It was a place considered to be an unspoiled, harmonious wilderness similar to the standards of the Christian Heaven or Paradise.

Click image to enlarge. Thomas Cole (American), The Course of the Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State, 1836, oil on canvas, 99.7 x 160.7 cm, New York Historical Society, New York.

Click image to enlarge. Thomas Cole (American), The Course of the Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State, 1836, oil on canvas, 99.7 x 160.7 cm, New York Historical Society, New York.

The Course of the Empire: The Consummation of Empire is painting # 3. Here, the empire is at its most heightened and glorious state. The landscape has been significantly altered by man’s ability to consume its resources. Almost every speck of land has been covered by immense structures and columns, with human advancement even spilling into the waters in the form of luxurious gondolas. The human figures are pipsqueaks compared to the scale of their structures, yet they can be noticed reveling in the glory of the empire’s spectacle. Towering over this scene of the empire’s splendor is the colossal statue of Athena – Greek goddess of wisdom, strength and skill, who holds in her hand the figure of winged victory. The next painting in this series will show you how beautifully ironic that is.

Click image to enlarge. Thomas Cole (American), The Course of the Empire: The Consummation of Empire, 1833-6, oil on canvas, 130 x 193 cm, New York Historical Society, New York.

Click image to enlarge. Thomas Cole (American), The Course of the Empire: The Consummation of Empire, 1833-6, oil on canvas, 130 x 193 cm, New York Historical Society, New York.

The Course of the Empire: Destruction is painting # 4. Consummation in every form has lead to destruction. The human need to consume has brought invasion to the land of this once glorious empire, and it is being overthrown by another. The immense man-made structures are ablaze in flames and burning to the ground. The now tumultuous sea is crowded with boats full of people (are they conquerors or fugitives?), some of which are also on fire and capsizing. Engulfing the landscape are dark, foreboding clouds which could be billowing smoke or storm clouds, or both. Everywhere you look there is chaos and violence, which seems to be overseen by the colossal statue of a warrior in the right foreground. Raising up his shield, the statue’s arm and shoulders cover his head, which we cannot see, or perhaps he has actually lost his head. This statue leans over the massive battle in front of him, in a ready to pounce stance. As if eager to jump right into the chaos, the statue is unconcerned with the person at its base, whose arms are raised in a plea for mercy, about to be cut down by an approaching soldier. Our eye is ultimately drawn to the pale figure of a women dressed in white and red robes in the central foreground, who is attempting to flee over the ledge and escape the soldier tugging at her garment, as if she would rather die than witness such chaos and destruction.

Click image to enlarge. Thomas Cole (American), The Course of the Empire: Destruction, 1836, oil on canvas, 99.7 x 160.7 cm, New York Historical Society, New York.

Click image to enlarge. Thomas Cole (American), The Course of the Empire: Destruction, 1836, oil on canvas, 99.7 x 160.7 cm, New York Historical Society, New York.

The Course of the Empire: Desolation is painting # 5. In the aftermath of the empire’s destruction, what remains is here in a desolate landscape. As ever, the peak of the mountain stands in the background of this once vibrant and flourishing land. Calm is restored through the quiet waters, the dim moonlight, and the overgrowth of greenery. Craggy rocks, weeds and vines have popped out. The memories of the once vast and glorious empire are held in its few remaining monuments, now in a state of ruin. Like the ruins of the Roman forum, it gives you the creeps to look at these structures, because it brings about the eerie memories of such prosperity and wealth, now extinct. But is it a good extinction or a bad extinction? Depends on how you look at it. Deep, very deep.

Click image to enlarge. Thomas Cole (American), The Course of the Empire: Destruction, 1836, oil on canvas, 99.7 x 160.7 cm, New York Historical Society, New York.

Click image to enlarge. Thomas Cole (American), The Course of the Empire: Desolation, 1836, oil on canvas, 99.7 x 160.7 cm, New York Historical Society, New York.


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