Thursday, June 26, 2014

"The Course of Empire" by Thomas Cole (1833-36)

Thomas Cole, whom I featured here yesterday, is one of my favorite American artists. His use of light is almost unparalleled among the American artists of his time. His work is remarkable in that it almost always carries a clear message. This group of paintings tells a story; much in the same way that his iconic “Voyage of Life” does.

Only in this case he explores a society rather than an individual. The man who commissioned the work was Luman Reed, a successful merchant and a patron of some of America's earliest artists. The paintings were completed between 1833 and 1836.

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, in all of its 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 its 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?

And, 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.

It's easy to see just what I love about the works of Thomas Cole. They are; at once; a combination of history, art and philosophy. And that is a combination that can set my mind to wandering and wondering...

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