Thomas Cole: Course of Empire
A mighty empire felled by wild barbarians from beyond the hills or a once powerful civilisation destroyed by avarice and greed. These are not just the fantasies of today.
Thomas Cole: Course of Life
Thomas Cole was born in Lancashire in 1801. His father lost his fortune when Cole was young and he began working as an engraver at 13. At 17 his family emigrated to America. His period working in newly industrialised Lancashire may have influenced his life view and later work. The north of England was rocked by the industrial uprising known as Ludditism. These groups of workers sought to defend their rights and conditions of life by destroying and burning machinery and factories. Industrialisation brought great progress to humanity, but the immediate costs were immense and Cole would have witnessed this at an early age. De Loutherbourg’s Coalbrookdale by Night suggests just one artisitic response to this new way of life.
Cole was never formally taught painting but learnt from textbooks and from an itinerate artist he befriended in America. If his early life turned him to art as a career with a focus, America turned him into an artist. He tasted his first success at 24 following a trip to the Catskills. His paintings from this trip show the countryside devoid of both tourists and the trappings of the tourist industry. Even before the emergence of passenger steam trains, tourism was a booming industry. This was the time of Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper. Cole had a particular penchant for painting native Americans into his landscapes to add authenticity. At 26 he painted a scene from the Last of the Mohicans in which a circle of native Americans complement a sexually suggestive and sublime wild landscape.
Cole returned to England at 28 to study the great masters and the madly radical modern artists Turner and Constable. He was enamoured by Turner’s light and storms, and Constable’s clouds, specially his Hadleigh Castle. His great discovery on this trip was Claud. He was drawn particularly to Claud’s use of light and his combination of modern and ancient themes. He was known as the American Claud.
He also stayed in Florence for several months. Here he was a member of a cosmopolitan artistic milieu. He enjoyed trips out to the surrounding country where he painted ruins. His ruins are replete with vegetation and are as much natural landscapes as they are archeological studies.
The consummation of nature
At 33 he painted the Course of Empire. These five paintings took him four years and drew on his reflections and artistic influences. The series ostensibly depicts the development of humanity. Rather than a step by step progression to some form of perfection, the paintings show the unraveling of culture. The middle painting is the high pinnacle of civilisation.
Is civilisation just a flash in the pan? Cole imagines that after its destruction, an imperial power will return to a wild state of nature. His final painting is to some degree the best. It is the most sublime and reposeful. This is a wood you can be mindful in or even woodbathe in. Is there then anything to be regretted about a civilisation’s destruction?
As humanity develops, they become more and nature becomes less. Yet this is the story of nature’s great power to regrow and heal.
Several themes are repeated in each of the paintings. The setting is always the same as can be seen by the unusual topography (a boulder resting on a cliff reminiscent of the Scene from The Last of the Mohicans). Certain topoi are repeated. For example, a lady is placed the edge of a bridge, a boy plays in water and a sage bends down in abstract thought in both Arcadian or Pastoral Stage and Consummation of Empire.
The course of the Course of Empire
It is worth focusing on each painting. Even the first painting The Savage State is busy with humanity. This first painting is full of action, humans are either hunting or dancing around a fire. Here Cole drew on earlier themes of American wilderness, great rock formations, tipees, forest, great storms.
In the Arcadian or Pastoral State change has already been enacted on nature. The river holds boats, but at the expense of the forests. A recently cut tree trunk in the foreground. A shepherd protects his flock, a couple dance to the pipes and a crowd celebrate their rituals in a henge like structure. A sage like man suggests the birth of mathematics (leading to practical science and abstract thought).
The Consumation of Empire is full of classical imagery. The scene is replete with white marble, columns, collunades and temples. This painting is all human, all building, all triumph. A fantasy of high classicism than none but a Boris Johnson or Mussolini would want to believe in.
Nature here is not wild, but the nature has an international taste. i.e. agaves in urns, captured war elephants, palm trees. Although we have not moved from the scene of the earlier paintings, this city has become a major international power. Does the tamed nature also suggest other trappings of power shared by Rome and America (slavery, military expansion and growing despotism).
In the foreground a throned woman watches a man crossing a bridge on an elephant. What is the story here? Aeneas and Dido, Anthony and Cleopatra, Zenobia and Odaenathus? Many saw the swagger of thewarlike potentate as criticism of Andrew Jackson, the genocidal seventh president.
Destruction, an army pillages the once mighty city. In the foreground, a woman attempts suicide to escape a solider. The sage-like man of earlier paintings lies dead. The bridge collapses under the weight of soliders. In the background the fine columns are ablaze, a storm vortex threatens. Except for the storm and the rolling seas, there is no nature in the painting. Who is the enemy? It’s hard to definite sides. Possibly this is a civil war. If so, Cole was perhaps prophetic. 25 years later America went to war over itself over slavery.
Desolation as I have said is a repose, a beautiful scene of nature and ruins. There are no humans, but only birds. A pale wintry sun sets in the background. Does civilisation deserve any greater epitaph than this?
The title of Desolation also alludes to the famous passage of Tacitus.
To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.
Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School
Although the exhibition celebrates The Course of Empire, Cole’s most famous work, this was not what Cole felt was his greatest work. This would have been The Oxbow (or View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm), also shown in the exhibition. Cole’s greatest achievement however began as a sketch for The Course of Empire. X-rays have shown traces similar to buildings for consummation.
This painting is a great repose to the Course of Empire. It condenses all five bombastic paintings from that series into a stunning and sublime image of America before the emergence of industrialisation.
The focus of the paining is the great oxbow. Yet this landscape is not devoid of humans. The countryside is divided into fruitful fields. Here and there can be seen small boats on the river and the smoke of small farmsteads. There are still plentiful woods for hunting and foraging. This is humanity living in harmony with nature. As if to hammer the point home, Cole has painted a handsome painter in the foreground hidden by the overgrowth of the forested hillside. Yet half of the painting is taken up by sky. To the left a storm is still raging but over the fields the sun is shining.
As everyone knows, you always get a rainbow if it’s sunny after a storm. The rainbow was a symbol of God’s first covenant with man (as many American Christians would have known).
And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.
This same chapter of Genesis, the earth is made a common treasure of Noah and his sons to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth”. The complexities of this passage would not be lost to Cole. Yet can this, or any, Christian symbolism be seen in The Course of Empire?
After the first death, we are told, there is no other.
Thomas Cole: a summary
Cole died at 47. His work inspired later generation of artists, yet they responded to the same themes in different ways. Cole passed just as mass industrialisation changed both American life and the environment.
Today Cole’s themes have become more relevant than they have in many years. The despoliation of the natural world, the dangers of despotism and the total destructions of war face us once again. If civilisation is to survive it must change.
Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire is showing at The National Gallery 11 June – 7th October.