Toward the end of a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I stumbled upon something that I haven't seen in about 20 years, Thomas Cole's cycle of paintings The Course of Empire. They were part of small show of his work commemorating the 200th anniversary of Cole's arrival in the United States. The last time I saw them was in their permanent home, the New York Historical Society sometime back in the early 1990s. The series was always down or on loan when I made subsequent trips to the Society to see them. It was such a pleasure to finally see these paintings again in the original after such a long time.
The prominent New York merchant, art collector, and philanthropist Luman Reed commissioned the series for his townhouse on Greenwich Street in what is now downtown Manhattan. Cole worked on the series from 1833 to 1836. It is a grand painted reflection on the subject of the rise and decline of civilizations, something very much on the minds of wealthy merchants at the time of rising Jacksonian populism. More directly, these paintings are meditations on American history and how it is to be understood. A passage from Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage serves as both an inspiration and an epigram for the series:
First freedom then Glory -- when that fails,All of these are my photographs unless otherwise noted. They are freely available especially to educators.
Wealth, vice, corruption ...
All of the paintings in this series show the same place at different periods of time. The clue is the odd rocky hill with a boulder on top that appears in all of the paintings, though from slightly different points of view in each.
The Savage State
Photo from Wikipedia
The sun rises on a stormy morning in a wilderness landscape inhabited by "savages" with some clear references to the native Americans.
The Pastoral State
Photo from Wikipedia
The Pastoral State shows the same landscape at the beginnings of settled agrarian life.
A smoking ring of dolmens very much like Stonehenge indicating a primordial sacrificial religion.
Building a boat on the shore.
The same rocky hill with a boulder.
The Pastoral State is a kind of Arcadia as imagined by early American intellectuals, a kind of prelapsarian Eden of honest toil, solid morals, and innocence. Luman Reed and Cole himself probably imagined the early history of the United States as something like this. Thomas Jefferson himself envisioned the USA to be an agrarian republic of independent farmers.
Consummation of Empire
Photo from Wikipedia
This painting was the centerpiece of the series and is larger than the other paintings. We are still in the same place. You can see the rocky hill with the boulder on the far right. This is a painting filled with mixed feelings. The city is at the height of its imperial splendor, and it is splendid. But there's an element of the grotesquely out of scale and over extravagant about the whole thing.
Some scholars identify this emperor in an oversize chariot drawn by an elephant as a reference to Andrew Jackson; seen as a demagogue raised up by the passions of the mob. Educated merchants like Luman Reed felt very threatened by the idea of direct democracy championed by Jackson. They preferred an oligarchy of the well heeled and well educated. Reed's views were hardly unique and were shared by a number of prominent businessmen and intellectuals of the day. It should be noted that Andrew Jackson's idea of democracy was certainly not liberal democracy. He had no interest in any kind of universal franchise. Jackson's was a democracy of white men and no more. His genocidal policies toward native Americans were very much about establishing white supremacy.
There is a lot of architecture in this painting, all of it original and some of it very fine. Cole worked from time to time as an architect. The large Doric Greek temple facade here reminds us that Cole entered a competition to design the Ohio Statehouse and was awarded third prize. Alexander Jackson Davis built the present Ohio capitol using much of Cole's design.
The empress looks bored with the whole spectacle.
These are paintings made for the print market. Engraved copies of Thomas Cole's work were very popular and in high demand. Paintings like this are full of anecdotal details that I think Cole loved to paint and still delight viewers.
The details in this painting are extraordinary and imaginative.
And here is our rocky hill with the boulder.
Photo from Wikipedia
Violence devastates the once majestic city. Whether this is foreign invasion or domestic uprising or both is not clear. The corrupt extravagance of the imperial city crumbles into chaos. The bridge over which passed the emperor in his triumphal procession now collapses under the weight of furious combatants. A colossus based on the Borghese Warrior dominates the right side, its head lying broken in the foreground. The surrounding sky swirls with an approaching storm, as furious as the combat below.
I can certainly see Turner's influence here. Cole traveled to England to see his work and met Turner. Cole was shocked by his coarse cockney manners.
A colossal version of the once famous Borghese Warrior in the Louvre.
Photo from Wikipedia
And in the end, everything returns to wilderness. This is the only panel where humans are absent. A pale and lonely moon shines over a wilderness landscape where the empire and its inhabitants are all no more.
Thomas Cole's The Course of Empire is about a particular understanding of American history, one that still has currency though much altered over time. The idea of an America corrupted by empire and ambition is still very much alive. These paintings are an implicit criticism of unchecked democracy, the democracy championed by Andrew Jackson that amounted to a kind of majoritarian dictatorship that devastated racial and ethnic minorities in the USA. As Thucydides' account of the fall of Athens reminds us, democracies can sometimes be among the most aggressive of empires.
These paintings are also about an issue long at the heart of all of Thomas Cole's work; his very ambivalent feelings about the development of the American wilderness. In general, Cole supported settlement and development of the wilds. He was not a tree-hugger. On the other hand, the rapacious ways of clearing so much wilderness used by timber companies, railroads, mines, and independent farmers themselves gave him pause. Who ultimately is responsible for the creation and development of the infrastructure of settlement and commerce (roads, canals, railroads, etc)? Should it be entirely on the initiative of individual land owners as Jefferson and Jackson and his supporters contended, or should this be a public effort led and funded by the federal government as Hamilton argued? Though it would appear that this issue was settled in the New Deal (from rural electrification to the Interstate Highway system, a big New Deal project long after the New Deal ended), there are still many who oppose public financing of infrastructure development. Cole's sympathies appear to be with Jefferson, though the magnificent spectacle in the panel Consummation indicates once again, his mixed feelings.
The small show went to great lengths to show Cole's ties to the Romantic movement in Europe and his own influence on later American art. In his paintings Cole strikes me as very much a Romantic in the tradition of Turner, Constable, or Friedrich (whose work I doubt he knew). Cole also belongs to that visionary part of Romanticism that includes Goya, Blake, and Runge. Like their work, Cole's paintings are attempts to imaginatively engage with modern transformations through a rich imaginative and very personal aesthetic, through a kind of individual myth and fantasy. Cole in the USA was a very public figure with a deeply personal and private imaginative life (as was Turner in Britain). He is credited with bringing the Western landscape traditions to the New World and remaking them to suit the experiences of the American continent. American artists for generations admired and deeply revered Cole and his work.
Thomas Cole photographed in 1846, Photo from Wikipedia