The Course of Empire

The Course of Empire - Destruction (click for larger image)


The Course of Empire is a five-part series of paintings created by Thomas Cole in the years 1833-36. The artist presented a cyclical view of history in which a civilization appears, matures, and collapses. Cole drew from a number of literary sources, such as Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Byron's epic Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. The motto he attached to the series was taken from Byron's poem:

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 - barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,

Hath but one page...



 Cole also drew upon paintings he had seen on a  trip to Europe (1829-32), including the work of J.M.W. Turner and Claude Lorrain. The five paintings follow a dramatic narrative arc, anchored by the mountain in the background, and enlivened with a complex symbolic system illustrating this imaginary world's history, including  the changing relation of man to nature, the role of animals, the arts, and the military.

The series was acquired by The New-York Historical Society in 1858 as a gift of the New-York Gallery of Fine Arts, and comprises the following works:

The Course of Empire - The Savage State; The Course of Empire - The Arcadian or Pastoral StateThe Course of Empire - The Consummation of EmpireThe Course of Empire - Destruction; and The Course of Empire - Desolation.

The series of paintings depicts the growth and fall of an imaginary city, situated on the lower end of a river valley, near its meeting with a bay of the sea. The valley is distinctly identifiable in each of the paintings, in part because of an unusual landmark: a large boulder is precariously situated atop a crag overlooking the valley.

Thomas Cole, born in 1801 in Lancashire, England. He lived until 1848. He immigrated to America with his family when he was 17 years old. After a short stay in Philadelphia, they went to the frontier town of  Steubenville, Ohio, on the Ohio River. Early on he made wood engravings of cloth and wallpaper designs and, later, painted theater sets. During his four years in Ohio, his interest in nature grew, and he also began to paint portraits as an itinerant artist. In 1823, he moved to Philadelphia to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  His family moved  to New York and he joined them there in 1825, setting up a studio in their house. He began painting landscapes and taking sketching trips up the Hudson. In 1825, at age 24, he displayed three landscapes in a paint shop window, sold them all to three noted artists: John Trumbull, William Dunlap, and  Asher B. Durand. Cole was elected at the age of 25, as a founding member of the National Academy of Design and became America's first great landscape painter.

In 1826 James Fenimore Cooper wrote his famous "The Last of the Mohicans" and the next year Cole chose a scene  in which Leatherstocking (Natty Bumpo) and his companions, prisoners in the Delaware camp, watch as Cora begs for mercy from Tamenund, the tribal leader. In the painting,  Scene from Last of the Mohicans, you see the large circle of Indians with Cora and Tamenund on the far side under a balancing rock. 

 Before he left for Europe in 1829, he visited  Niagara Falls to see this most famous of American natural wonders.  And there, he made sketches and the painting Distant View of Niagara Falls was done in 1830.  Cole sailed for London, on June 1, 1829. There, he visited English artists, including Turner and Constable, and he also exhibited his paintings at the Royal Academy and elsewhere.  In 1831, he went to Paris and, from Paris, after having visited the Louvre, on to Rome, Naples, and Paestum near Naples (where he saw the famous temples), and then to Florence, which he described as "a painter's paradise." He returned to New York in November 1832, enriched by three years' experience of European scenery and in love with the European cultural past.  In 1833, Cole moved to Catskill, New York, on the Hudson, his home for the rest of his life. It was there that he painted the great series The Course of Empire between 1833 and 1836, five paintings now in the New York Historical Society.   The series was commissioned by Luman Reed, a wealthy merchant, a wholesale-grocer-turned-collector, whom Cole met soon after his return from Europe. Cole  was in charge of arranging the rooms on the third floor of Reed's home to become his painting gallery. He intended his Course of Empire to be installed in the front room of the gallery, around the mantelpiece. Four of the paintings are approximately 39 x 63 inches; the center one over the mantel, 51 x 76 inches, the dominant painting. His plan was The Savage State on the left; with below it, The Pastoral State, then The Consummation of Empire above; and on the right, Destruction and Desolation. And so we shall follow them through.

1. The Savage State.  The forces of creation are evident in the movement of air, water, and the fresh growth of the trees.  We see the spring time of early civilization, notice the wigwams.

2.  In the second in the series, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, the time is morning and the season has changed to summer.  A permanent settlement with a circular temple, derived from reconstructions of Stonehenge. The development of the arts and sciences is indicated by 1) a man drawing geometric designs on the ground with a stick,  2) a boy playing a flute and two figures dancing to that music, 3)and  there is a young boy kneeling and drawing a stick figure of the standing female figure, who holds a distaff.  Cole put his own monogram directly beneath the boy, perhaps suggesting  the beginning of painting, of the fine arts. Marking the middle distance is the mountain that presided over The Savage State.

3. The large six-foot painting, The Consummation of Empire is  overwhelming in its overflow of figures and classical architecture and incident.  A triumphal procession is entering across a bridge and over a stone bridge, a military procession. The painting is brightly colored and the sense of a sated society is suggested. On the lower right  a boy  playing with a toy boat is being bullied by a larger boy who sinks his boat, obviously a omen of ill things to come.

4. The next painting in the series is  Destruction.   The empire is being pillaged. The  sky is ominous and the forces of nature and men are overwhelming civilization.  Cole has incoroprated the classical sculpture in the right foreground, of the Borghese Gladiator making it the generator of  the destructive forces. Through the smoke and darkness, notice the mountain.

5. And then the last in the series is  Desolation.  We see a lone, huge column with a ruined aqueduct behind, an empty harbor, the moon, the eternal presence of the indestructible mountain. A lamentable scene, emptied of all human life and vanity. 

 Luman Reed died, shortly before Cole's series was complete, so the paintings were never installed in his home as intended.  Yet The Course of Empire received great public acclaim and great artistic acclaim.

The series is on permanent display at The New-York Historical Society.