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.

Alma-Tadema: antiquity at home in the nineteenth century

A group of women look down to the sea from a stone parapet. The vivid blue of the sea and the clear bright light suggest a warm location – perhaps the Amalfi Coast, rather than the promenade in an English or Dutch sea-side resort. Their costume, and perhaps the ship glimpsed arriving below, suggest the world of ancient Rome, as does the marble parapet on which they lean; but beyond the antiquity suggested by the statuary and their costumes, this elegant group could be anywhere in time or space. This scene, Coign of Vantage (1895) is one version of a recurring image in the work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), seen in several other pictures also displayed in the current exhibition at London’s Leighton House Museum, ‘Alma-Tadema: at home in antiquity’; elegantly dressed figures arranged on stone seating, with the sea in the distance. This recurrent image might be linked to a significant turning point in Alma-Tadema’s life, his 1863 honeymoon, which took him and his first wife Pauline through Naples, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast, and appears to have changed the course of his career.

Alma-Tadema, Coign of Vantage
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Coign of Vantage (1895), private collection.

In 1863 Alma-Tadema was emerging as a talented history painter with a taste in scenes from the early mediaeval period, often depicting the encounters of powerful royal women with writers or churchmen (for example in Queen Fredegonda at the Death-Bed of Bishop Praetextatus, 1864). But his experience of Pompeii and the ruins and landscapes of the Italian coast redirected him towards classical antiquity, and it was his incorporation of classical scenes and domestic life into the genre of history painting that became the hallmark of his work. Monuments from Pompeii can clearly be seen in his work: An Exedra (1871) incorporates seating and a tholos from Pompeii’s Via dei Sepolcri, repositioned to permit a distant glimpse of the sea. This exedra, or a version of it, recurs in many paintings in the show, often with an inscription carved into it. Other scenes use adaptations of it, such as the seats marked with names as if they were cathedral choir stalls in 1881’s Sappho and Alcaeus, sadly not in this show, or 1903’s Silver Favourites, in which the exedra is part of a sea-side parapet, and surrounds a pond containing the fish of the title, being fed by one of the exquisitely dressed women as her companions look on languidly (baths and fountains are another Alma-Tadema visual trope).

Alma-Tadema, An Exedra, 1869
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, An Exedra (1869), private collection.

History painting had become a significant genre in nineteenth-century art. Perhaps in step with developments in historiography and the rise of ‘scientific history’, artists sought to represent scenes from history and literature through accurate depiction of the appropriate material culture. This involved both reproduction and recreation. Alma-Tadema’s constructed cityscapes and interiors evoke the earlier genre of the capriccio, in which disparate buildings and works of art are included in the same scene, enabling the knowing viewer to recognise the artists’ distortion. Some of his work comments on the process of gathering evidence – he paints collectors and art lovers amid their treasures, as in his A Roman Lover of Art (1868). The technical proficiency in handling materials, detail and perspective which Alma-Tadema deploys on architectural detail, sculpture, and mosaic is reminiscent of the earlier Dutch tradition of depicting house and church interiors. Indeed, many of his classical scenes are domestic interiors evoking mood rather than a historical event, showing women making offerings, playing with pets, or admiring flowers, rather than illustrative history paintings such as Hadrian Visiting a Romano-British Pottery (1884). A Hearty Welcome (1878), for example, shows a woman greeting a girl in a garden; the models are Alma-Tadema’s second wife Laura Theresa, and his daughter Anna. Alma-Tadema’s focus on domesticity means that his commitment to historical accuracy may be better realised in the individual material objects, than it is in the family groups he so often depicts. In moving the emphasis of the genre painting from the historical recreation of famous scenes and episodes to the more timeless world of the everyday interior, he anticipates the interests of social historians.

Alma-Tadema, A Hearty Welcome
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Hearty Welcome (1878), Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

There may be a tension between Alma-Tadema’s depictions of domesticity and what the exhibition labels describe as the ‘contemporary fascination with decadence in the ancient world’ seen in some of his work, and that of his contemporaries. Some of Alma-Tadema’s works in the exhibition, especially his larger-scale later works, suggest the complication of the gaze, and the complicity of the paintings’ subjects in staging the scenes depicted and their awareness of events within them – the emperor watching from the dais as his guests are covered in falling petals, and the woman staring out to the viewer in The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888). The domestic Alma-Tadema on display here avoids the explicit eroticism of near contemporaries such as Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). Gérôme’s eroticised views of antiquity share the tenor of his orientalist paintings in depicting women as the object of the male gaze, most clearly in Phryne before the Areopagus (1861), in which the famous courtesan displays her exquisite body to the ancient court and to the modern viewer. Decorative panels from Alma-Tadema’s Roman-themed London home and studio, contributed by many artists, are more suggestive of Gérôme’s approach. Both Andromeda (Frank Dicksee, 1891) and A Christian Martyr (Herbert Gustave Schmalz, 1888) depict women naked and constrained, while Lord Leighton’s Bath of Psyche (1887) offers a more typical opportunity for artistic voyeurism. Alma-Tadema himself painted several bath-house scenes, such as In the Tepidarium (1881) and the late A Favourite Custom (1909), but while the languid women of Alma-Tadema’s later works offer further evidence that he participated in the eroticisation of antiquity, his domesticised version of the ancient material world offers a contrasting vision.

Alma-Tadema, A Favourite Custom
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Favourite Custom, 1909, Tate.

As one of the final displays of this exhibition demonstrates, Alma-Tadema’s vision of the Roman world has influenced many cinematic depictions of the past, and what we may recognise as a Roman setting is actually an Alma-Tadema creation. Setting his pictures alongside clips from films from The Last Days of Pompeii (1913) – itself a version of a Victorian historical novel, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton – to Gladiator (2000), the show demonstrates that Alma-Tadema’s interiors have influenced set-designers’ three-dimensional attempts to recreate Roman interiors, notably in the emphasis on domestic bathing. In his focus on the family and the household, Alma-Tadema created a distinctive vision of the ancient world, perhaps anticipating later interest from both story-tellers and historians in personal lives, and in social and cultural rather than political history.

 

An anachronic conversation: Cy Twombly and classical art

Cy Twombly’s allusive use of the classical past in his art is a familiar theme of his work, seen in projects such as his Fifty Days at Iliam sequence, recently exhibited at the Pompidou Centre in Paris as part of a major retrospective. But how might placing his work alongside objects and images from classical antiquity illuminate this practice? One might expect such an exhibition to demonstrate the gulf between ancient and contemporary art, but as the show’s title suggests, a dialogue may be possible.

Divine Dialogues: Cy Twombly and Greek Antiquity, currently on display at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, aims to explore Twombly’s work, and to introduce it to a wider Greek audience. The small exhibition takes a careful selection of paintings and sculptures and sets them alongside ancient representations of the divine figures named in the works: Pan, Aphrodite, Apollo, Dionysus, Orpheus and Aristaeus, and Nike. The curator’s aim is to introduce Twombly’s art with its ‘minimalist multi-level symbolism’ (as the curator, Prof. Nicholaos Stampolidis, describes it) by setting it in conversation with ancient representations of the same figures and their mythology.

Cy Twombly's Venus (1975) in Athens
Cy Twombly’s Venus (1975) on display with Anadyomene (1981) and a Hellenistic torso of Aphrodite. Photo Paris Tavitian, © Museum of Cycladic Art.

Some of the pairings are quite obvious matchings of subject between ancient and modern; a Hellenistic torso of Aphrodite, and a vase painting of her birth, face Twombly’s 1979 series Aphrodite Anadyomene. Twombly’s resin cast of pan pipes, scarcely distinguishable from an ancient dedication, clearly belongs to the god whose statue is displayed nearby. One can see the force of ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s description of Twombly’s sculpture as ‘more archaic than archaizing’.

Other ancient statues of gods stand near Twombly’s paintings that catalogue the divine epithets and cult names applied to them, giving the contemporary painting a religious force. In some of his works, Twombly includes representative symbols from which ancient divinities can be recognised; Nike is represented by a delta-shaped wing, in works from 1980 and 1984, while a Dionysiac phallus in Dionysus, from 1975, echoes the form of an ancient grotesque statuette displayed alongside it.

In some cases, the allusion is indirect. The 1975 work, from a show itself titled Allusions, drew on contemporary sources such as Venetian graffiti, as well as classical antecedents. Aristaeus mourning the loss of his bees references a neo-classical sculpture of the name rather than Virgil’s text, and Twombly appears to delight in the phrase as much as he illustrates its sadness. It’s hard to connect these sombre works to the black-figure vase painting of a winged figure holding tools in each hand.

The centre of the exhibition is not, however, a work by Twombly, but one by Kleitias, a Greek vase painter from the sixth century BCE. The François Vase, visiting Greece from the Museo Archeologico in Florence, is set slightly apart from Twombly’s work, and without an explicit counterpart from him.

The Francois Vase
The François Vase, in its usual setting in Florence. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze, 4209.

But looking closely at the vase, with its rows of tiny, detailed mythological scenes, one sees that each figure is carefully named. From this perspective, Twombly’s practice of writing names and epithets on his canvases, to identify the figures whose myths he evokes, may become an echo of the ancient painter’s practice, a ‘semiotics’ shared across the centuries that separate them. The ancient vase, it seems, is responding to the contemporary display as a whole, and perhaps raising some questions about it. Can one appreciate or understand Twombly’s paintings, or the François vase’s mythological scenes, without reading their textual components? Or does Twombly’s ‘strange language of scribbles’, as the curators describe it, circumscribe the interpretation of his art?