The Course of Empire: Narrative and Context [VIDEO]

 Guide: Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire”

Scroll below to explore the larger contexts behind Cole’s artistry and the story in The Course of Empire, then examine each of the five paintings in detail.

The Landscape

Thomas Cole is considered one of the first great American landscape painters, and these five paintings are a virtuosic display. His work was strongly influenced by the Romantic ideal of the Sublime wilderness, as well as older European painters such as Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin.

Landscape and its artistic representation was important for America’s national identity in the 19th century, and the fate of the wilderness had spiritual and political resonance for Cole and like-minded artists and intellectuals.

The Story

The five paintings are set in the same place during progressive times of day, each with different moods and weather conditions (the first painting depicts a tumultous cloudscape at dawn; the final painting is tranquil twilight). Cole imbues each view of this landscape with its own emotional state.

Cole’s imaginary civilization looks and acts like an ancient Greek or Roman society, from the wise philosopher sketching geometric diagrams in the dirt in The Pastoral State to the monumental statue of a discus-throwing gladiator in Destruction.

The Allegory

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…

Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818)

Empire depicts the complete life cycle of a civilization. In this, Cole was influenced by cyclical theories of history well known to intellectuals in Cole’s time, as well as global and national current events.

The generic Classical setting of Cole’s story lends it a sense of timelessness. The paintings are a universal parable that can be applied to any civilization, and it was seen in the light of current events and trends in Cole’s own time. It can be understood just as easily, and be as powerful, today.


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