The Course of Empire
Updated: Aug 21, 2021
Every parent knows that young kids and art museums rarely mix well. But when I took my five kids (the oldest just 14 at the time) to see Thomas Cole's famous landscape series The Course of Empire (pictures below) at the New York Historical Society on a family vacation, they were transfixed for almost an hour. Part of that, of course, is the paintings themselves-- and Cole was a master of dramatic detail that drew the viewer in, a particularly useful skill in a time before televisual entertainment.
But part of it is also that they tell a story, one that can be readily understood with just a bit of explanation and that even perceptive youth can understand may have relevance to today's America. Painting in 1836, in the heart of the ferment of Jacksonian democracy, Cole saw civilizations as going through inevitable sequences of rise and decline and he looked around with concern at the America of his own day.
The Course of Empire is a series of five paintings that tells the story of the rise and fall of civilization. The first "The Savage State" shows the first stirrings of civilization amidst the wilderness. The Second, The Pastoral State, shows the beginnings of arts, sciences, agriculture and modern civilization stirring from amidst the wilderness. For Cole, right-wing, anti-expansionist and a champion of the rural (he founded the Hudson River School of painting) this Arcadian vision that recalled America's early days was, despite its simplicity, in fact the most desirable state of existence. The third painting, The Consummation of Empire superficially shows the empire at the peak of its powers-- but a closer look shows the gilded luxury suggesting decadence. The Fourth painting, Destruction, shows a savage scene-- the former civilization has been brought down low, its works destroyed and its population flees in terror from those who choose to sack it. The final painting, Desolation, shows the eerie moonlit ruins of the civilization, where no trace of living humans is visible.
When looking at at Cole's paintings today one cannot help but wonder where America sits in Cole's supposed cycle of history. They wondered this even in Cole's own day, in 1844, Levi Woodbury, former Secretary of the Treasury, New Hampshire Senator, and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice, gave a speech at Dartmouth College, which referenced Cole's already famous works specificaly.
Woodbury implicitly challenged the world-view behind Cole's painting. While acknowledging
"None can forget how frequently new nations arise on the ashes of others, and in many things transcend their predecessors, like some of our own western cities springing up, in greater luxuriance and power, on the very mounds of a less civilized race. But others succeed, and, by care in their reproduction as well as growth, have been advanced much, both in beauty and strength. . . , in regard to that portion of it displayed in man, almost the whole philosophy of his existence will be found contained in the idea of his continued progress; and some, it is hoped not groundlessly, suppose that the power of deity will more and more be unfolded by advances in man, not only here and through time, but in the whole universe, and through the endlessness of eternity."
For Woodbury, America represented eternal progress, and America would not fail.
Which vision of America awaits us?
Are we in of some version of Cole's later stage empire, or are we simply unwitting participants Woodbury's eternal ascension?
And regardless of the answer to that question, what should we do? How should we live?
It is that question to which the best of my work, implicitly or explicitly, attempts to answer.