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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
If, as so many agreed, to maintain its unique character and to hold to its great promise America must avoid the “debauching artificialities” of civilization that so surely had corroded all older societies, how could one—without becoming schizophrenic—accept its booming progress that leveled the forests and gouged the hills and that was also its Messianic mission? One could disguise the issue with euphemisms and describe the materialistic speculation as “an immense exertion of the spirit,” as Mr. Miller points out was done. One could shirk the whole problem in a blind faith that somehow, by some peculiar law of nature not clearly formulated or previously applied, things would work out all right in America. (Laissez faire were the magic words.) Or one could wrestle with the question, as Cole did in The Course of Empire, and express the gloomy suspicion that in the end “Time’s noblest offspring” would pay the same price as the Medes and Persians, Etruscans and Mayans, for arrogantly heaping their civilizations on Nature.
Which is to say that his mood was somewhat deeper than the endemic melancholy of romanticism. It is possible to believe, in any case, that his allegory was pointed and, judging from its reception by the more sensitive minds of the day, that it reflected a general foreboding. Could one, with impunity, attempt to build a heaven on earth, as Americans seemed bent to do? Was this roaring material “progress” truly compatible with our national virtue? It is hard to determine whether Cole was more disturbed by the impulse to deny the gospel of civilization for the cult of Nature, which his religious persuasion should have made it difficult to do, or by his apprehension that the denial of Nature, so manifest all about him, was the beginning of still another end to man’s apocalyptic hopes. That, of course, was the nub of his dilemma.
Cole joined the church fairly late in life and approached his subsequent work with a convert’s zeal. Before he died he longed to repaint The Course of Empire as a Christian allegory. One can only wonder how he would have treated the series in these terms.
In a program for his series of paintings for his patron Luman Reed, Cole wrote of each:
I The Savage Stage or The Commencement of Empire
[This first picture of The Course of Empire] "must be a view of a wilderness,—the sun rising from the sea, and the clouds of night retiring over the mountains. The figures must be savage, clothed in skins, and occupied in the chase. There must be a flashing chiaroscuro, and the spirit of motion pervading the scene, as though nature were just springing from chaos."
II The Arcadian or Pastoral State
"The second picture must be the pastoral state,—the day further advanced—light clouds playing about the mountains—the scene partly cultivated—a rude village near the bay—small vessels in the harbor—groups of peasants either pursuing their labors in the field, watching their flocks, or engaged in some simple amusement. ..."
III The Consummation of Empire
"The third must be a noonday,—a great city girding the bay, gorgeous piles of architecture, bridges, aqueducts, temples—the port crowded with vessels—splendid processions, &c.—all that can be combined to show the fulness of prosperity: the chiaroscuro broad."
IV The Destruction of Empire
"The fourth should be a tempest,—a battle, and the burning of the city—towering falling, arches broken, vessels wrecking in the harbour. In this scene there should be a fierce chiaroscuro, masses and groups swaying about like stormy waves.This is the scene of destruction or vicious state."
V The Ruins of Empire
"The fifth must be a sunset,—the mountains riven—the city a desolate ruin—columns standing isolated amid the encroaching waters—ruined temples, broken bridges, fountains, sarcophagi, &c.—no human figure—a solitary bird perhaps: a calm and silent effect. This picture must be as the funeral knell of a departed greatness, and may be called the state of desolation."