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Whither The Course Of Empire?
In five dramatic allegorical paintings, Thomas Cole echoed the fear of Americans, over a century ago, that all civilizations, our own included, must someday perish.
October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
We have lived long and closely enough with the theme to accept it as presented by the cartoonist’s shorthand. But to Cole’s generation it had the enchantment of novelty. As late children of the Renaissance Americans were quite aware of their continuous line of descent from the ancient Greeks and Romans. The world still seemed very young. There was, in fact, lingering authority in Bishop Ussher’s pronouncement that it had been created in 4004 B.C. When Charles Willson Peale unearthed the first mastodon skeletons near Newburgh, in 1801, this awesome revelation of a prehistory caused international excitement. Even Thomas Jefferson, as Edgar Richardson observes, first resisted the thought that “Nature’s God” could allow one of his own creations to disappear; and he posted Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out for specimens in the uncharted West.
America had read with fascination Constantin Volney’s Les Ruines; ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires, which told of great civilizations of a remote, strange past that had actually vanished from earth. Volney was a wandering French intellectual who had adventured into the mysterious deserts of the Near East and reported the almost unheard-of ruins he saw there—ruins of some civilizations more ancient than those of Greece or Rome.
While Cole was painting his series, the Knickerbocker Magazine was running the stories of John Lloyd Stephens, an American who had penetrated more deeply than Volney into exotic lands of quite forgotten history. Stephens had gone to Mycenae, the Holy Lands, Arabia Petraea, and other far reaches of the world before he plunged into the wilderness of Central America and described the weird remains of high civilizations that had once flourished on our own continent and had long since disappeared beneath the jungle. He was a superb adventure writer and his tales fired the imagination of his generation.
The American mind, so long and comfortably rooted in the classic tradition of Greece and Rome, was getting a disturbing new vision of the past. Was it possible that the course of empire was not to be as Bishop Berkeley had predicted the century before?
The four first acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day:
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.
Might a different ending be written for the fifth act?
Cole himself had observed the ruins of ancient worlds in Sicily and at Paestum, Rome, and Volterra. Like so many of his artistic and literary countrymen he made his pilgrimages to the Old World as a professional “duty”; and, like the rest, he bore the impress of his experiences all his life. On the eve of the painter’s first departure, Bryant, in a sonnet, counseled his friend and kindred spirit to gaze on the antique splendors of Europe “till the tears shall dim thy sight”; but to keep bright that “earlier, wilder image” of their beloved America. To impress that image of natural beauty more brightly on his mind, Cole made one last excursion into the wilderness just before he sailed away from home.
But at Volterra, perched on a cliffside, he shuddered with “awful delight” at the prospect before him. At home he had often mused on the brink of some rocky precipice “without thought of its indestructibility; but here the great mass, bearing the marks of rapid and continuous decay, awakened the instantaneous thought that it was perishable as a cloud.” He practically exhausted the romanticist’s vocabulary trying to describe his impressions. And as he sat under the ruin of an Etruscan wall, “gazing long and silently on the great scene of desolate sublimity,” the theme for The Course of Empire took shape in his mind’s eye.
The commission from Reed almost immediately followed the artist’s return to America. It took him more than three years to complete the assignment, a time during which he himself occasionally tired of the gaud, the glitter, and the tumult which he felt obliged to put on canvas. During those same three years Ralph Waldo Emerson was preparing his first published work. The Course of Empire and Nature appeared almost simultaneously.
Of the two classics Cole’s paintings probably won more immediate favorable attention. But Emerson’s essay reduced to a statement of conviction the dilemma that not only haunted Cole’s work but that bothered a whole generation of American artists and writers in one way or another. In one of his recent pieces Perry Miller has dealt very suggestively with this question that led to so much unresolved confusion in the culture of nineteenth-century America—the obsessive drama, the American theme, he calls it, of Nature versus civilization.