The Course of Empire is a five-part series of paintings created by Thomas Cole in the years 1833-36. It is notable in part for reflecting popular American sentiments of the times, when many saw pastoralism as the ideal phase of human civilization, fearing that empire would lead to gluttony and inevitable decay.
One of the defining works of the Hudson River School of painting, The Course of Empire depicts the growth of a fictional civilization, from birth to power to ultimate demise.
When composer Nell Shaw Cohen first saw Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire at the New-York Historical Society, she was inspired to write a piece that represented the story seen in Cole’s series.
To secure patronage for the Course of Empire, Cole employed
his substantial talents as a writer. Learning that Luman Reed
planned to commission several large landscapes for a wall of his
gallery, Cole sent Reed an extensive prospectus.12
In each picture a valley is viewed from a different vantage point: as the series progresses from the Savage State (Fig. 1), to its Arcadian phase (Fig. 2), through the Consummation of Empire (Fig. 3), the empire's Destruction (Fig. 4), and ultimate Desolation (Fig. 5), nature reflects the empire's fortunes--the first scene occurs at dawn in early spring, the second is a June morning, and so forth.13
Other inaccurate assessments have followed, in particular the belief that Cole's political sympathies were democratic. To take this for granted, however, is to overlook not only the anti-Jacksonian sentiment that Cole occasionally vented in his journals and letters, but also the veiled political and topical content of his wellknown cycle, The Course of Empire.
Associating the beginnings of landscape art with the concurrent appearance of popular democracy, scholars have generally assumed that Cole shared the cultural and nationalistic premises of the native landscape school that developed under this influence.
There is no better illustration of the life cycle of a great power than The Course of Empire, a series of five paintings by Thomas Cole that hang in the New-York Historical Society. Cole was a founder of the Hudson River School and one of the pioneers of nineteenth-century American landscape painting; in The Course of Empire, he beautifully captured a theory of imperial rise and fall to which most people remain in thrall to this day.
Conceived in the mid-1830s, Cole's great pentaptych has a clear message: all empires, no matter how magnificent, are condemned to decline and fall. The implicit suggestion was that the young American republic of Cole's age would be better served by sticking to its bucolic first principles and resisting the imperial temptations of commerce, conquest, and colonization...
With The Course of Empire, Thomas Cole achieved what he described as a "higher style of landscape," one suffused with historical associations, moralistic narrative, and what the artist felt were universal truths about mankind and his abiding relationship with the natural world.
Cole began sketching ideas for The Course of Empire as early as 1829 and ruminated on the series throughout his first trip abroad.