Thomas Cole's "The Course of Empire"

Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire” is so well known that there would seem to be little cause to comment on it except that it is easily misread, as when it is treated by the art historian Ross Barrett as a reaction to the Jacksonian democracy of the period, when there is nothing in the series of five paintings about the rise and fall of civilizations that is even remotely concerned with the politics of Cole’s time. The series is, however, of interest to a follower of intellectual history because, aside from its artistic accomplishments, the series marks out Cole’s conception of human history and this stands on the cusp of two very different ways of understanding human history-- as if we are not always on the cusp of something or other. In his case, on the one cliff lies a theory of history dominant in the late Eighteenth Century that had been so influenced by Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, which depicts mankind as going from some glorious level of civilization to a decrepit form of that because of some set of circumstantial events, such as a succession of bad emperors or else because of some fatal poison introduced into the society, such as Gibbon imagined the case to be with a Rome that had become Christian. On the other side of the chasm lies an evolutionary theory of society, where people went from being primitive to ever more civilized, and that mediated by the way they made their livings rather than because of political machinations. Cole works hard to find images to fill out his understanding and, in that early period in the study of pre-literate societies, those are not easy to come by.

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The first picture in the series is entitled “The Savage State” which Cole imagines to be a lot like the nomadic Indians of the Eastern United States. He portrays a hunter with bow and arrow bringing down a deer, the forest overgrown, and a settlement with teepees reminiscent of the ones he drew in his pictorialization of “The Last of the Mohicans”. What is not sufficiently appreciated, perhaps, is that Cole is describing a “hunting gathering society”, the idea that a social way of life is tied to a specific technology, this view not codified until two genertions later when Lewis H. Morgan spelled out three steps of social evolution--hunting, pastoral and civilization--in his 1877 book “Ancient Society”. In the first stage, men roamed the wilderness in search of game while (more controversial of late) the woman gathered the berries and nuts that in fact supplied most of the nourishment for a settlement.  What Cole did not imagine was a previous stage of hunter-gatherer, where animals were brought down by a spear alone, or a stage even more primitive than that, where men with torches chased a herd of animals over a ledge. But that is not what matters. What matters is that Cole saw the relationship between a technology, an economic way of life, and an architecture suitable to that level of social development. The wild had not been tamed; people lived within its interstices, hunting for their food just as animals had done, which is by killing those of another species, albeit animals did it without weapons, long before people arrived on the scene.

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The second picture in the series is called “The Arcadian or Pastoral State”. It also establishes a correspondence between the economy of a people, their way of life, and their architecture.  It depicts sheepherders on land very similar to that shown in the first picture but the land is partly cleared and people are walking down rough paths. Cole makes a reach to find the appropriate housing for these people. He uses a version of Stonehedge that is not a religious site or an astronomical laboratory, which is the way we think about it. Rather, it is a home because smoke is coming out of a stone roof. As in “The Savage State”, the emotions elicited by the portrayal of these two primitive times is eerie rather than Edenic. That is because there is no religion in either of those stages of human civilization, no little statues or temples as might be found in Poussin or as seem to have littered the roadsides of Biblical Israel, it always being a problem how to suppress local gods and replace them with the God of the Temple in Jerusalem. The eeriness of the two scenes is also conveyed by the places being captured in dark tones, as if the sun never came out.

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The third picture in the series, “The Consummation of Empire”, is entirely different. It is not at all eerie, what it portrays seen in full sunlight. It is the apex of a civilization patterned on that of Ancient Rome. It takes place within an architectural fantasy partly borrowed from Claude Lorraine. In the foreground is a bridge with many people and activities going on. This horizontal structure is contrasted to a centrally placed vertical statue. The lagoon in the background has architectural interest because there are two half bridges which reach from either side so as to leave room for ships to pass and yet serve as barriers so that the waters of the inner harbor will be more calm. So we have a prosperous port, the wealth of the place shown by the food and textiles that adorn the bridge and the built up places on the shore. This is no utopia because there is no sense that there is a perfected social order, only that togaed people live amidst abundance and with wonderful and clean, mostly purely white, structures at which to look. The people live well; they have a maritime culture; their architecture is grand. And so the three factors of social life seen before also complement one another in this new state, the land itself becoming ever less important, and so this civilization perhaps able to sustain itself indefinitely, having freed itself from nature and so subject only to the ravages that can be brought on by civilization itself.

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That is where Gibbon comes in, history now composed of the deeds of particular men rather than of the types of men, those anonymous peoples, who made up pre-history. Anthropology is replaced by history as that is rightly understood as the intersection of particular individuals with their specific circumstances rather than groups of people living in their general circumstances. And yet Cole does his own turn on the Gibbon view of history because there is no slow decline to his empire, as Gibbon laid out the line of ill fortuned emperors with which Rome was beset. Rather, the destruction of Cole’s empire comes all at once, in a catastrophe which engulfs his imperial city in flames, people fleeing their pleasures, the fire created, perhaps, by the people in the boats that may be invasion vehicles but could also be seen as rescue vessels coming to save who they can. The scene captures a cataclysm by no means supernatural that has befallen these people, people falling off a broken bridge, fire everywhere, headless statues. The end has come but the ending is not yet over.


The last painting in the series, “Desolation”, captures the aftermath. Things are quiet now, the remainder of the place caught in the moonlight, the place looking again eerie, as it had before the rise of the empire. The moss that covers the column is unattractive, a livid, cancerous green, rather than the creeping vines that usually bedeck what has been left behind by a place. The farther half bridges that made the seaport safe from heavy waters are totally gone while in the foreground there is still a drip of water from a fractured water pipe. There are no people living amidst what we can properly refer to as a ruin, very different from the Piranesi ruins amongst which the descendants of the Romans lived, and whose etchings no doubt inspired Cole to paint his much bleaker picture. A ruin, as Georg Simmel reminded us, was a place whose state of decrepitude was part of its experience, rather than something to be looked past to capture what the place looked like when it was integral. This idea of ruin captured the Romantic imagination, what with creaking old houses and superannuated people, as in “Wuthering Heights” and remains with us in horror movies, where people go into houses into which they ought not intrude. What is particularly creepy here, however, is that no one wanders through and we should remember that the first two stages that Cole depicted had human inhabitants however foreboding was the scenery. Humanity has not come full circle, to begin over again. Rather, “Desolation” is a picture of an end of things.

So what are we to make of all of this? Cole’s series is neither a portrait of the inevitable evolution of civilization through stages to a more complex and comfortable stage. Nor is it a picture of a cycle whereby empires flourish and then founder to be replaced by new empires. Rather, it is a most dreadful and baleful account of the stages of civilization mostly in the eerie light of trying to get by with some improbable acme achieved briefly that may or may not come again. I do not know of a more scary projection than this that is to be found until H. G. Wells produces “The Time Machine” some sixty or seventy years later, of a future where the descendants of the middle class and the workers have become separate species at war with one another as much as any set of goblins or machines that harass our own descendents. Moreover, “The Course of Empire” is produced at a time of optimism, the United States still a more or less homogeneous Anglo-Scot culture embarked on its westward expansion and so not seeing any limits to itself. The pictures do not lie. What is pacific in Cole’s “The Oxbow”, the meandering river and flatland gentle beneath the forested hill, is malignant here, where Cole’s art and imagination get the better of him, producing what they see rather than what intellectual history would have them see.