Thomas Cole and the Course of Empire Essay

Beauty Is Not a Timeless Thing Thomas Cole is known for his realistic portrayal of American landscapes and his allegorical works (Eisenman 154). He is a Romantic artist because his artwork depicts natural beauty and wilderness that also reflects “his inner feelings and imagination” (Spielvogel 659). In his series of five paintings, Cole reveals his thoughts and feelings in a series of paintings to show the importance of human’s coexistence with nature because “beauty is not a timeless thing” (Spielvogel 659). Cole, an American artist, was born in 1801 in England, but moved to the United States with his family in 1818 (“Thomas 1801”).

Being an apprentice in an engraver shop while he was in England, Cole became a professional engraver in Philadelphia in 1823 (“White”). After his first visit to the White Mountains in 1827, Cole spent the rest of his life sketching natural scenery in the Hudson River Valley and its surrounding areas because he was impressed by the beauty of the American countryside (“White”). Cole felt it was his duty “to depict nature, especially American nature, as the visible hand of God” (“White”). He became one of the most famous realistic landscape artists in the United States (Maryk).

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Upon his return from the visit to the galleries of London and Paris between 1829 and 1832, he began to infuse his personal thoughts and ideas into his artworks (Thomas). He called this “a higher style of landscape” by which he meant historical and allegorical landscape paintings (Eisenman 154). The Course of Empire is one of Cole’s most famous series of allegorical works. Based on the same landscape located somewhere at the end of a river valley in the Untied States (Course), Cole adds his imagination and thoughts to a city evolving “from a near state of nature to consummation of empire, and then decline and desolation” (Course).

Cole can be said to be a representative of Romantic artist because his emphasis on natural beauty, and because he imbues his feelings and underlying messages into his works (Thomas). The Course of Empire, a five-part painting depicting the growth and fall of an imaginary city, reveals Cole’s fondness for nature and his fear of its destruction (Course). In the first painting, The Savage State, Cole shows the “simplicity and beauty” of nature (Thomas), and how the Natives can live in harmony within it.

During this state, the valley is in its barbaric stage but filled with lively activities: clouds blanketing the mountain, hunters chasing deer, giant trees waving in the wind, and Native Americans paddling canoes in the creek (Course). This landscape is depicted from far away, and the focus of this painting is a bush-covered cliff surrounded by giant sycamore trees. There are a few teepees clustered around a fire pit at the far right end of the cliff but they are as small as specks of dust. Both humans and animals seem so small and insignificant compared to the vastness of the trees, cliffs, and the mountains.

Cole shows this village in its primitive, savage state with all the elements living and interacting in harmony. In the second painting, The Pastoral State, Cole reemphasizes his fondness for nature, and depicts this half-developed valley in a relatively untainted state on a spring or early summer day (Course). The sky has just been cleared up by fresh wind and the river is filled with calm water (Eisenman 153). In this painting, Cole moves closer to the riverbank. In the background, a newly-built temple can be seen in the midst of the bushes against the purple mountains (Course).

In the foreground, people everywhere are enjoying nature and doing whatever they please: shipbuilding, herding, plowing, laughing, and dancing. There is even an old man, who might be Cole himself, in the foreground passing his time drawing in the dirt with a stick. In this painting, Cole shows the grandeur of nature, and how accessible this magnificent mother earth can be enjoyed and utilized by humans. In The Consummation of Empire, Cole portrays a well-civilized city on the other side of the riverbank built at the expense of vanishing wilderness (Eisenman 153).

Besides some specks of trees here and there on the rooftops and a river filled with merchant boats streamed with different colors sailing by, there is hardly any trace of nature. Only a faded distant view of the mountains is in the way back. The center of this landscape is a bridge jammed with people crossing from each side. The temple is no longer in the middle of the bushes, and has turned into a huge domed structure dominating the riverbank (Course). Cole pours in more of his imagination by adding “two pharoses” guarding the mouth of the river, and “a victorious general crossing the bridge in procession” (Course).

This painting shows the height of a possible European civilization with its inhabitants savoring the successful urbanization of their city. In The Destruction of Empire, Cole shows the downfall of this previously well-built city, and the horror that its inhabitants have to go through during their last and final days. In order to depict everything in detail, Cole moves his landscape even closer to the river and shows how this city is sacked and demolished (Course). There is “a fleet of enemy warriors” sailing up the river, killing the residents and raiding the city (Course).

The bridge that previously connect the two sides of the river is broken and the columns destroyed (Course). In the foreground, “a statue of some venerable hero stands headless,” still frozen in a fighting stance (Course). Women are crying and being chased by soldiers. There is nothing but death and chaos. Cole vividly shows the city’s destruction and the sufferings peoople are going through, but that is only part of his message. In his last painting, Desolation, Cole shows the ruins of this previously destroyed city years later in which everything seems to have returned to its primitive state (Course).

The once-beautiful empire has transformed from a city of splendor to ruins, and finally into wilderness. There is no trace of humans, but only trees and bushes growing back on the cliff. There are also some possible signs of life in the clear blue river beneath. Instead of the sun, which was depicted by Cole in all his previous paintings, there is only a rising moon in the middle of the sky (Course). The remnants of the temple by the river bank can be seen in dim light with a broken bridge in the foreground. There is also “a single column looms in the foreground” which has now become “a nesting place for birds” (Course).

Through this artwork, Cole demonstrates how “beauty is not a timeless thing” (Spielvogel 659). Everything returns to its original savage state at the end because nature, not humans, is the dominant force in the world. Cole reveals his deep awe and profound love for nature through The Course of Empire with a hidden message to humans: do not lose regard for nature because beauty is not eternal. Even though The Course of Empire spreads out across five generations, it can also be seen as a series of actions happening within hours.

Through this series, Cole addresses “philosophical and historical concerns” that went beyond the boundaries of pure “descriptive landscape art” (Eisenman 154). Cole also shows his concern over “the popularism of Jacksonian democracy” and its “expansionist rhetoric of unlimited national growth” (Eisenman 153). Cole is afraid that “the widespread settlement of the wilderness and the spreading railway lines and telegraph poles” will lead to the destruction of nature (Eisenman 157). Thus, he infuses his feelings for nature into his artwork hoping to inspire more Americans to appreciate nature’s unique geological features (Thomas 1801).

By interweaving the “temporal cycles of human and natural history” in this series, Cole not only implies that “this cyclical pattern of history is a curse of European civilization,” but also warns that this destruction can happen in the United States because “American landscape had already become susceptible to another pattern of desolation and destruction” (Eisenman 156). Cole is a Romantic artist because of his “exaltation of an untamed American landscape” (Romanticism) and his emphasis on the Romantic ideal that “nature is powerful and will eventually overcome the transient creations of men” (Romanticism).

The Course of Empire is Romantic because it “mirrors” Cole’s vision of the world and becomes his “instrument” in displaying his thoughts (Spielvogel 659). Cole’s paintings help people rediscover the beauty of nature and reexamine the meanings of their history. Works Cited “The Course of Empire. ” Wikipedia – The Free Encyclopedia. 19 March 2010 . Eisenman, F. Stephen. Nineteenth Century Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2002. Maryk, Michelle. “A Pic-Nic Party by Thomas Cole. ” 27 September 2007. Online video clip. YouTube. Accessed on 20 March 2010 . “Romanticism. ” Wikipedia – The Free Encyclopedia. 20 March 2010. < http://en. ikipedia. org/wiki/Romanticism>. Spielvogel, Jackson. “Reaction, Revolution, and Romanticism, 1815-1850. ” Western Civilization, Alternate Volume: Since 1300. Seventh Edition. United States: Thomas Wadsworth, 2009. “Thomas Cole. ” Wikipedia – The Free Encyclopedia. 17 March 2010 . “Thomas Cole 1801-1848 Artwork Images, Exhibitions, and Reviews. ” World Wide Resources Absolutearts. com. 19 March 2010 < http://wwar. com/masters/c/cole-thomas. html>. “White Mountain Art and Artists – Thomas Cole 1801-1848. ” Thomas Cole Biography. 19 March 2010 < http://whitemountainart. com/Biographies/bio_tc. htm>.


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