Whither The Course Of Empire?

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In spite of our contrary-mindedness about these matters, The Course of Empire has quite recently been rated by one critic “the most extraordinary series of paintings in American art.” It may well be. In the five pictures there are what the professionals term “some delightful passages,” particularly in the last of the series, “The Ruins of Empire,” where the artist levels off from the histrionic (lights of the preceding subjects and, with the tension relieved, concludes his story with quiet dignity. Taken individually, each of the canvases has painterly merits which few of his American contemporaries could have matched. But they labor under the allegorical freight with which Cole burdened his message.

He was hardly cold in his grave before the critics started complaining of the heavy, ethical weight of his allegories. But it is just this which for us, a century later, makes this series such an important cultural landmark. The historical place of any work of art remains an abiding fact in our enjoyment of it. Even masterpieces long and universally celebrated as the very standards of beauty are to a degree also objects of knowledge about the past. The Course of Empire, whatever its other qualities, is an outstanding historical monument.

The series had been painted on commission for Luman Reed, one of New York’s most distinguished and liberal patrons of art. It was originally intended to all but cover one wall of Reed’s private art gallery in his Greenwich Street residence. Reed died shortly before Cole completed the project and the five paintings found their way to the New-York Historical Society, where they hang today in monumental splendor. The patron had given the artist his choice of subject and Cole came up with an elaborate program that seems to have been accepted without serious modification.

“A series of pictures might be painted,” he wrote Reed in September, 1833, “that should illustrate the history of a natural scene, as well as be an epitome of Man,—showing the natural changes of landscape, and those effected by man in his progress from barbarism to civilization—to luxury—to the vicious state, or state of destruction—and to the state of ruin and desolation.

“The philosophy of my subject is drawn from the history of the past, wherein we see how nations have risen from the savage state to that of power and glory, and then fallen, and become extinct. Natural scenery has also its changes,—the hours of the day and the seasons of the year—sunshine and storm: these justly applied will give expression to each picture of the series I would paint. It will be well to have the same location in each picture: this location be identified by the introduction of some striking object in each scene —a mountain of peculiar form, for instance. This will not in the least preclude variety. The scene must be composed so as to be picturesque in its wild state, appropriate for cultivation, and the site of a sea-port. There must be the sea, a bay, rocks, waterfalls and woods. …”

His synopsis of the five episodes that would comprise his great cycle is quoted in captions accompanying the illustrations. It was a grandiose concept that called for an indulgent patron as well as for a tireless and consecrated artist. “You will perceive,” Cole concluded in his letter, “what an arduous task I have set myself. …”

It takes some effort to bear in mind that the most discerning and best informed Americans of the time were apparently deeply moved by this allegorical extravaganza when it was first shown to the world three years later. To find a modern version of what now seems such obvious sentiment and melodramatic imagery we must turn to Hollywood’s epic spectaculars. The analogy comes quickly to mind, for Cole was undoubtedly influenced by those vast “wide-angle” panoramic canvases that enjoyed such a great vogue in the nineteenth century, and that in their developed form, winding off one cylinder and onto another before delighted audiences, were in fact called “moving pictures.” The fourth of Cole’s paintings is indeed very closely related to one of the more popular panoramas of the day, Robert Burford’s Pandemonium from Milton’s Paradise Lost.

However, the fact that Cole’s “cosmoramic” performance was applauded by the most sensitive critics of his generation involves no real paradox, merely a shift of historical viewpoint. Over the century that has elapsed since Cole first showed these canvases, Spengler and Toynbee, a host of archaeological revelations, two world wars, and the most recent disturbances at Yucca Flats have made us intimately familiar with the uneasy thought that human societies, like human beings, are perishable; a thought that was so simply and admirably summarized for our own time in James Thurber’s cartoon sequence, The Last Flower.