The art of historical development: Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire

The fall of old empires and the rise of new ones became a topic of pressing cultural interest as the impact of political revolutions in late eighteenth-century Europe and the Americas became clear. The topic was of central importance to European historians exploring not only the economic and social development of their own countries, but using the encounters of European colonialists in the Americas with indigenous peoples and cultures to establish developmental or ‘stadial’ theories of history. These ideas take visual and material form in Thomas Cole’s ‘Course of Empire’, a cycle of paintings produced in New York between 1833-36, and the centerpiece of an exhibition, ‘Thomas Cole: Atlantic Crossings’, currently on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and transferring to London’s National Gallery in June.

Cole The Savage State
Thomas Cole ‘The Savage State’, New-York Historical Society

Cole (1801-48) emerges from this show as an important figure in the transmission of European artistic developments to an emerging American artistic tradition, finding full form in the works of the Hudson Valley School. Cole, who was born in Lancashire but emigrated to the USA with his family in 1818, returned to Europe for training and to visit the classical sites of Italy, and transmitted his European contemporaries’ awareness of their classical heritage to landscape artists working in the USA.

However, Cole’s work also materialises the response of European thinkers to the temporal possibilities of the new world of the Americas, and the apparent encounter with the past that its landscapes and indigenous peoples offered. A 1728 poem by Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753), ‘Verses On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America’, captured both the hopes of economic migrants to America, like Cole’s family, as well as a view of historical progress. The title of Cole’s series may refer to the poem’s final stanza, in which Berkeley envisions the rise of a new empire based in America, or perhaps to one of many citations of its compelling phrases:

Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The first four acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.

Cole’s empire, however, takes a very different course from that of Berkeley, ending in ‘Desolation’ rather than nobility; the most optimistic reading of the sequence would be to read them as a cyclical rather than linear account of human society, at odds with new developments in historiography but reflecting artistic and cultural interest in stories of decline and destruction, from versions such as Gibbon’s account of the fall of Rome to John Martin’s scenes of biblical destruction and Turner’s scenes of classical decline; both of these artists clearly influenced Cole’s compositions and choice of subjects. Where the economic historians were interested in progress up to the present, and the growing role of international trade and commerce, the classical heritage of fallen empires was still of interest to artists combining new romantic sensibilities with increased awareness of ancient art through its ruined remains as, for example, the Parthenon marbles were displayed in London.

Cole proposed his planned series of pictures to New York businessman Luman Reed, describing his plan to illustrate the cycle of historical change through its impact on a particular landscape:

A series of pictures might be painted that should illustrate the History of a natural scene, as well as be an Epitome of Man—showing the natural changes of Landscape & those effected by man in his progress from Barbarism to Civilization, to Luxury, the Vicious state or state of destruction and to the state of Ruin & Desolation.

Cole’s notion of historical change draws in part on theories of social development proposed by eighteenth-century writers and historians, attempting on the one hand to construct models of human development, and on the other acknowledging the likelihood of decline. These conjectural models drew on empirical evidence, treating North America and its landscape and indigenous people as one source for understanding the early stages of human social development. Historians aimed to create an empirical form of historiography that showed the impact of material factors and of landscape on historical change. David Hume’s ‘On Commerce’ outlined a developmental model of human society, while Adam Smith in his Lectures on Jurisprudence saw hunting, shepherding and then agriculture as the three stages of historical development that preceded commerce, the final stage. The London version of the exhibition is subtitled ‘From Eden to Empire’, making Cole’s debt to stadial theory more clear, but as the full cycle of the ‘Course of Empire’ shows, Cole’s view of human development was more pessimistic than that of the stadial theorists.

The first two paintings in the Course of Empire series follow the developmental pattern of Scottish stadial theory. ‘The Savage State’ hints at both the development of society, with its grouping of tiny huts or tents in the background, and at the potential for war, with the hunting scene in the foreground; Tim Rood sees an allusion to ‘the tepee-shaped huts of American Indians’ in this setting (Rood 2010: 142). In New York the pictures are displayed as Cole intended, with these first two scenes to the left of the central image of empire at its height.

Cole The Pastoral State
Thomas Cole ‘The Pastoral State’, New-York Historical Society

The Arcadian State’ shows a pastoral scene, with evidence of a developing society that is both classical and, with its central monument resembling Stonehenge, a nod to ancient Britain. In this stage of development, humans engage in a range of peaceful activities, including art, farming and herding. The temple and the boats hint at communal activity, with smoke rising from the temple as rites are celebrated.

Cole Consummation of Empire
Thomas Cole ‘The Consummation of Empire’, New-York Historical Society

Cole’s depiction of the height of empire, ‘The Consummation of Empire’, the central picture of the series and the largest of the five canvases, illustrates a clearly classical world. This enables him to evoke both grandeur, in the classical structures that now obscure the landscape, and the potential for decadence, in the figure of the returning victor crossing the bridge mounted on an elephant, and perhaps in the painting’s opulent palette, with its gold and pink tones. While Turner’s imagined Carthage is an inspiration, the British neo-classical architecture of Soane and Nash, which Cole would have seen on his return visits to Europe, may provide another example of the neo-classical rising empire, as the exhibition’s curators suggest.

Cole Destruction
Thomas Cole ‘Destruction’, New-York Historical Society

But while the historians saw a linear progress from hunting through pastoral society and agriculture to commerce, the artistic tradition saw the potential for decline and destruction, drawing on imagery from the classical past and its traditions of empires rising and falling.  There is a journey beyond these stages between Eden and Empire. Cole departs from the stadial, developmental model for his final two pictures, in which the idea of the state recedes.

Cole Desolation
Thomas Cole, ‘Desolation’, New-York Historical Society

The final two pictures, ‘Destruction’ and ‘Desolation’ show first destruction, with war destroying the buildings of the consummate city; the turbulent sky nods to that of Turner’s ‘Hannibal Crossing the Alps’, with its implied critique of Napoleonic expansionism. ‘Desolation’ marks the absence of human life from the cycle; herons nest on the top of a collapsed column, as the ruined city reveals the landscape that underlay it. Is ‘Desolation’ a return to Eden, or does the absence of human life mark a final stage in a linear sequence?

Cole Oxbow
Thomas Cole, ‘View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – the Oxbow’, 1836, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

While the Course of Empire shows a sequence of change across its five images, Cole’s most famous work, ‘View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – the Oxbow’, painted in 1836, demonstrates a multiple temporality within a single canvas. Again, this reflects responses to the situation of European colonisation of the Americas, in which settlers’ farms abutted wilderness. In this painting, the wild hill of the foreground provides a vantage point from which the farmed lowland of the river valley is viewed. Wilderness and domestication exemplify the ‘contemporaneity of the non-contemporaneous’. America represented both the past, in the perspective of the European settlers on the indigenous societies that they found, and the future, as home of the next empire; it is in these landscape paintings, rather than the ‘Course of Empire’ itself, that Cole confirms Berkeley’s vision of the future possibilities of America.

  • M. Kornhauser and T. Barringer (2018) Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings. Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, New York.
  • Foshay, E. M. (1990) Luman Reed’s Picture Gallery: A Pioneer Collection of American Art. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in association with the New-York Historical Society, New York.
  • Rood, T. (2010) American Anabasis : Xenophon and the idea of America from the Mexican War to Iraq, Duckworth, London.
  • More information about Thomas Cole at Explore Thomas Cole, and the website of the Thomas Cole National Historic site, Catskill, NY.
  • Further reading on The Course of Empire and its bibliography at its permanent home, the New-York Historical Society.

Author: Carol Atack

Researcher in ancient Greek political thought and history, and its contemporary reception. Post-doctoral researcher on Anachronism and Antiquity project, Faculty of Classics, University of Oxford.

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