Thomas Cole (1801-1848) is best known as founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting. Members of the group included Frederick Edwin Church, Asher Durand, Albert Bierstadt, and John Kensett, who painted the wildness and beauty of the untouched American landscape. Cole also wanted to create a “higher style of landscape” with a moral message. His second series The Voyage of Life (1839) (National Gallery, Washington, DC.) included four paintings that traced the life of a man through birth, youth, middle age and old age. His first series The Course of Empire was painted between 1835 and 1836. Cole wanted to save America’s beautiful and wild natural landscape from encroaching industrialization. The Erie canal was completed, and the railroad was expanding during that time.
The Course of Empire (1835-36) included five paintings. Cole convinced his patron Luman Reed (1785-1836) to commission the project. A successful merchant from Coxsackie, New York, Reed moved to New York and opened an art gallery. The series was to be displayed on the third floor of Reed’s mansion at 13 Greenwich Street, New York City. The inspiration for The Course of Empire was Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818), Canto IV:
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—barbarianism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page…
Cole placed a newspaper ad for the series that included Byron’s poem.
Cole and Reed were not alone in their fears that America would follow the unfortunate course of empire.
Cole had conceived of The Course of Empire in 1833, and he painted the series while he lived in the Catskill Mountains. “The Savage State” or “The Commencement of the Empire” (1834) (39.5”x 63.5”) begins the series. It depicts clouds that are clearing at the dawn of a new day, and a vast landscape including nearby stream, wild trees, a distant bay, and a tall mountain. The same landscape appears in all five paintings, but viewed from different locations on the river. The mountain peak with a boulder at its top is the constant in all the paintings. The paintings also proceed through the course of a day.
At the left of the painting, a man clothed in animal skin and with bow in hand runs after a fleeing deer he shot with an arrow. The deer crosses the stream in the lower center of the landscape. In the middle of the composition, a group of people with a dog chase a fleeing deer. At the right, canoes are paddled up a river, and above a village of tipis can be seen. Smoke rises from a campfire, and natives dance around it.
Although the images are unclear to viewers of this painting, Cole described this scene in detail: “In this picture, we have the first rudiments of society. Men are banded together for mutual aid in the chase, etc. The useful arts have commenced in the construction of canoes, huts, and weapons. Two of the fine arts, music and poetry, have their germs, as we may suppose, in the singing which usually accompanies the dance of savages. The empire is asserted, although to a limited degree, over sea, land, and the animal kingdom. The season represented is Spring.” Cole added extensive descriptions to each of the paintings in the series.
“The Arcadian or Pastoral State” (1834) (39.5”x 63.5”) has moved down the river and a second mountain peak can be seen at the center of the work. A Doric style Greek temple is placed below the two mountains, and smoke rises from a sacrificial fire. The land has been cultivated. In the middle left of the composition, a man drives an ox, and a field is being plowed. A shepherd tends his sheep in the center of scene. To the far right, a group of women dance while a flautist plays for them. In the right foreground, a woman in white stands on a small bridge and holds a distaff (spindle). In front of her, a young boy draws a picture. At the left, an elderly man wearing a toga uses a stick to draw a geometric design in the dirt.
Cole spent time in Europe studying art and history. He commented upon this scene reminiscent of Archaic Greece: “The unracked and rude has been tamed and softened…It is evident that the useful arts, the fine arts, and the sciences, have made considerable progress.”
“The Consummation of Empire” (1826) is larger than the other four paintings (51”x 76”). Inspired by the Roman Empire at its height, the scene takes place where the river flows into the bay beyond. The simple bridge has become a massive marble structure with a triumphal arch at the end. A procession crosses the bridge. The victor in red rides on a vehicle drawn by elephants. A large group of soldiers and captives march in the procession. The triumphal arch is richly draped with gold cloth, and gold medallions adorn the top. Two gold military statues hold up a victor’s laurel wreath.
An unusually shaped tall black fountain spurts water. Next to the fountain, at the right, a well-dressed woman and her entourage watch the proceedings. Above them, a statue of Minerva (Roman goddess of war and wisdom) stands upon a tall structure. She wears her traditional toga and helmet, holds a spear, and in her right hand is a small statue of Athena Nike (Winged Victory). The bay is filled with ships of war and merchant vessels. The entrance to the river is guarded by two phari (lighthouses). Cole explained this painting: “In this scene is depicted the summit of human glory. The architecture, the ornamental embellishments, etc., show that wealth, power, knowledge, and taste have worked together, and accomplished the highest need of human achievement and empire. As the triumphal fete would indicate, man has conquered man—nations have been subjugated.”
“Destruction or Desolation” (1836) (39.5”x 63.5”) is set in the late afternoon. Storm clouds swirl as the city falls to an invading enemy. The buildings crumble and fires rage. Half the parade bridge has collapsed, and the make-shift wooden bridge collapses under the weight of those trying to escape the invading soldiers. Warships battle in the river, one sinking and another set on fire. Citizens pour out of the buildings to escape the fires, only to be slaughtered. A gigantic marble statue of a charging warrior commands the right side of the composition. Although he still holds his bronze shield, his head lies on the ground below. Cole has given the figure the pose of the Hellenistic Greek statue, the “Borghese Warrior.” The painting references the fall of Rome to the Vandals in 455 CE.
Cole describes the view of the drama taking place in the right corner of the painting: “In the fore-ground are several dead and dying; some bodies have fallen in the basin of a fountain, tinging the waters with their blood. A female is seen sitting in mute despair over the dead body of her son, and a young woman is escaping from the ruffian grasp of a soldier, by leaping over the battlement; another soldier drags a woman by the hair down the steps that form part of the pedestal of a mutilated colossal statue, whose shattered head lies on the pavement below. A barbarous and destroying enemy conquers and sacks the city. Description of this picture is perhaps needless; carnage and destruction are its elements.”
Cole returns the viewer to the same landscape seen in the first painting of the series. Day is dying, and the moon rises in the same location on the horizon where the sun rose. Scattered ruins of columns, colonnades, bridges, and temples still appear above trees and ivy that reclaim the land. A tall column that once supported the bridge now is the home of a heron and her nest. No human life is shown. The mountain with the boulder at the top, visible in all of the paintings, remains.
Cole concludes his description of this painting: “But, though man and his works have perished, the steep promontory, with its insulated rock, still rears against the sky unmoved, unchanged. Violence and time have crumbled the works of man, and art is again resolving into elemental nature. The gorgeous pageant has passed—the roar of battle has ceased—the multitude has sunk in the dust—the empire is extinct.”
The original agreement with Cole’s patron Luman Reed was to display the works in the Reed home. Unfortunately, Reed died in 1836. The series was acquired by the New York Historical Society in 1858, and hangs there today.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.