Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Thomas Cole - "The Course of Empire"

Thomas Cole is one of my favorite American landscape artists. He was born in England in 1801, arriving in America at age 18. He is most famous as one of the Hudson Valley landscape artists of the early 19th Century. His epic 4 painting work, "Journey of Life", done in duplicate, still stands as one of the best series of paintings on the subject of man's mortality.

Earlier in his remarkable, though short lived career; he passed away in 1848 at the age of 47; he was commissioned to create a series of 5 oil paintings that would depict the course of an Empire. The man who commissioned the work was Luman Reed, a successful merchant and a patron of some of America's earliest artists.

When you look at these paintings it is important to remember the time in which they were done. The early part of the 19th century was witness to the rise of democracy and self rule on a scale that had never been achieved. It was a time of intense optimism. To my eye, Mr. Cole was giving us a warning as to where our path would inevitably lead us; back to the beginning. A quick look at the news of the day suggests that he may have been on to something...

In this first painting of the series, "The Savage State", Cole depicts a wilderness environment. A buckskin clad hunter and Native Americans in canoes are depicted as living off the land. There is a dark quality to the painting, almost as if we are at the beginning of something greater.

In this second painting, titled "The Pastoral State", things are more ordered in appearance and you can sense the coming of something better. An old man drawing in the dirt with a stick, perhaps planning a building, and children playing and dancing all indicate an ordered way of life. Peace abounds.

The third painting, "The Consummation of Empire", is filled with the light of the noonday sun. Man is at his acme, seen as Rome, with all of it's splendor. Abundance, along with decadence, have replaced the "Pastoral State." The whole depiction is one of man as "King" over all that he sees.

In this fourth painting, "Destruction", the city is under siege and in flames. The bridge is almost at it's breaking point and the statue with no head seems to be urging the throngs forward. The only questions here are, where he is leading them, and why do they obey?

In the final painting, "Desolation", the sun has set, and the city-state is in ruins. All of the structures are being reclaimed by nature, and there are no people to be seen. All the "kings" are gone, along with all of their perceived accomplishments. The moon is rising, indicating that night, or darkness, has begun to settle on the land. This is the culmination of all of man's efforts to rule supreme.


  1. I was looking for the 5th painting in this series but I could not remember its name. I found it here through Google Images. Thank you for the post, these are really evocative, powerful paintings.

  2. And thank you for the comment. Glad you found the pictures after so long. Art is something we really could not do without. Thanks again- drop by anytime.