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Whither The Course Of Empire?

June 2024
14min read

In five dramatic allegorical paintings, Thomas Cole echoed the fear of Americans, over a century ago, that all civilizations, our own included, must someday perish.

Shortly before his death James Fenimore Cooper left off scolding his countrymen long enough to heap praises on the memory of his late friend Thomas Cole. Not only was Cole “the highest genius this country has ever produced” but also, in Cooper’s estimation, his The Course of Empire, the series of five paintings, was “one of the noblest works of art ever wrought.” He went on to predict that these canvases would one day be valued at fifty thousand dollars. In today’s booming art market and with today’s inflated prices that figure seems modest enough. But it was ten or twenty times larger than the artist’s original fee and a far higher sum than any American painting had yet sold for.

Cooper was not, of course, a specialized critic or historian of art, neither of which is given to such unambiguous opinions about modern painting. But he was a sophisticate among his fellow Americans. Earlier in his life he had spent seven years in Europe where he himself had been accepted as a New World genius. (One thinks of Franz Schubert calling from his death bed for more of Cooper’s novels to read.) He had honed his critical temper to a fine edge against the opinions and practices of the Old World, and he had gone shopping for “old masters” along the way.

Shortly after his return to America in 1833, the Knickerbocker Magazine somewhat caustically reminded American patrons of the arts that not every painting entering the country tagged with a big name was what it purported to be, and that they might better spend their money on works by the rising American artists of the day, such as Cole and Durand. Cooper needed no such encouragement; he was more at home with the artists than with the literary men of his own time and patronized them—Cole among others—both with advice and with commissions. It is part of his legend that he sat for long afternoons in the Louvre, “as regularly as the day comes,” while Samuel F.B. Morse copied paintings in the Grande Galerie, exclaiming, “Lay it on here Samuel—more yellow—the nose is too short—the eye too small—damn it if I had been a painter what a picture I should have painted.” Even so, the two remained lifelong friends.

The “glorious Fenimore” was by no means alone in his admiration of Cole’s work in general and of The Course of Empire in particular. William Cullen Bryant, whose remarks to his compatriots at large were more cordially and respectfully received than Cooper’s, had already labeled Cole a rare genius and had pronounced these five paintings “among the most remarkable and characteristic of his works.” There was, in fact, no audible voice to the contrary at the time. When The Course of Empire was first shown to the public at the National Academy of Design in 1836 it was an immediate popular success, which merely enhanced Cole’s already towering reputation in America.

After more than a century Cole’s reputation as an artist is still secure; or, more exactly, it has been reestablished at a fairly high level. He was born in England in 1801 and was virtually self-taught. His latent talent had apparently been sparked in Ohio, whither he had moved with his family when he was nineteen, by a meeting with an itinerant portrait painter—possibly the same wandering artist who a few years later gave Audubon pointers in oil painting. By his middle twenties he had already won the respect of the professionals. “This youth,” remarked the aging John Trumbull when he spotted some of Cole’s early canvases in a New York store window, “has done what all my life I have attempted in vain.” He bought a picture and persuaded his friends to buy others.

Cole went on to produce some of the most satisfying landscapes that were painted in America in his time. He was, to be sure, the leader and the most articulate member of the Hudson River School of painters, whose canvases—virtually by popular demand—opened up to Americans a fresh vision of their land. The country was clamoring for an art of its own, something that would suggest the richness of its expectations and, quite specifically, the glory of its unique natural resources.

Cole was something of a writer as well as a painter. Before he won fame as an artist one of his stories had been published in the Saturday Evening Post, and all his life he wrote highly commendable verse. He often volunteered elaborate literary expositions to accompany his pictures, a practice most modern artists scorn until they are properly approached. He never doubted that his foremost purpose was to edify his contemporaries and to “improve posterity” with the spiritual content of his message. The colors and arrangements of his canvases were important, not so much in themselves, but as aids to his preachments. That approach to art has become singularly unfashionable. Nowadays the abstract elements of a painting are considered not only of primary importance, but, at the extreme of current practice, quite enough in themselves without any recognizable content.

In spite of our contrary-mindedness about these matters, The Course of Empire has quite recently been rated by one critic “the most extraordinary series of paintings in American art.” It may well be. In the five pictures there are what the professionals term “some delightful passages,” particularly in the last of the series, “The Ruins of Empire,” where the artist levels off from the histrionic (lights of the preceding subjects and, with the tension relieved, concludes his story with quiet dignity. Taken individually, each of the canvases has painterly merits which few of his American contemporaries could have matched. But they labor under the allegorical freight with which Cole burdened his message.

He was hardly cold in his grave before the critics started complaining of the heavy, ethical weight of his allegories. But it is just this which for us, a century later, makes this series such an important cultural landmark. The historical place of any work of art remains an abiding fact in our enjoyment of it. Even masterpieces long and universally celebrated as the very standards of beauty are to a degree also objects of knowledge about the past. The Course of Empire, whatever its other qualities, is an outstanding historical monument.

The series had been painted on commission for Luman Reed, one of New York’s most distinguished and liberal patrons of art. It was originally intended to all but cover one wall of Reed’s private art gallery in his Greenwich Street residence. Reed died shortly before Cole completed the project and the five paintings found their way to the New-York Historical Society, where they hang today in monumental splendor. The patron had given the artist his choice of subject and Cole came up with an elaborate program that seems to have been accepted without serious modification.

“A series of pictures might be painted,” he wrote Reed in September, 1833, “that should illustrate the history of a natural scene, as well as be an epitome of Man,—showing the natural changes of landscape, and those effected by man in his progress from barbarism to civilization—to luxury—to the vicious state, or state of destruction—and to the state of ruin and desolation.

“The philosophy of my subject is drawn from the history of the past, wherein we see how nations have risen from the savage state to that of power and glory, and then fallen, and become extinct. Natural scenery has also its changes,—the hours of the day and the seasons of the year—sunshine and storm: these justly applied will give expression to each picture of the series I would paint. It will be well to have the same location in each picture: this location be identified by the introduction of some striking object in each scene —a mountain of peculiar form, for instance. This will not in the least preclude variety. The scene must be composed so as to be picturesque in its wild state, appropriate for cultivation, and the site of a sea-port. There must be the sea, a bay, rocks, waterfalls and woods. …”

His synopsis of the five episodes that would comprise his great cycle is quoted in captions accompanying the illustrations. It was a grandiose concept that called for an indulgent patron as well as for a tireless and consecrated artist. “You will perceive,” Cole concluded in his letter, “what an arduous task I have set myself. …”

It takes some effort to bear in mind that the most discerning and best informed Americans of the time were apparently deeply moved by this allegorical extravaganza when it was first shown to the world three years later. To find a modern version of what now seems such obvious sentiment and melodramatic imagery we must turn to Hollywood’s epic spectaculars. The analogy comes quickly to mind, for Cole was undoubtedly influenced by those vast “wide-angle” panoramic canvases that enjoyed such a great vogue in the nineteenth century, and that in their developed form, winding off one cylinder and onto another before delighted audiences, were in fact called “moving pictures.” The fourth of Cole’s paintings is indeed very closely related to one of the more popular panoramas of the day, Robert Burford’s Pandemonium from Milton’s Paradise Lost.

However, the fact that Cole’s “cosmoramic” performance was applauded by the most sensitive critics of his generation involves no real paradox, merely a shift of historical viewpoint. Over the century that has elapsed since Cole first showed these canvases, Spengler and Toynbee, a host of archaeological revelations, two world wars, and the most recent disturbances at Yucca Flats have made us intimately familiar with the uneasy thought that human societies, like human beings, are perishable; a thought that was so simply and admirably summarized for our own time in James Thurber’s cartoon sequence, The Last Flower.

We have lived long and closely enough with the theme to accept it as presented by the cartoonist’s shorthand. But to Cole’s generation it had the enchantment of novelty. As late children of the Renaissance Americans were quite aware of their continuous line of descent from the ancient Greeks and Romans. The world still seemed very young. There was, in fact, lingering authority in Bishop Ussher’s pronouncement that it had been created in 4004 B.C. When Charles Willson Peale unearthed the first mastodon skeletons near Newburgh, in 1801, this awesome revelation of a prehistory caused international excitement. Even Thomas Jefferson, as Edgar Richardson observes, first resisted the thought that “Nature’s God” could allow one of his own creations to disappear; and he posted Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out for specimens in the uncharted West.

America had read with fascination Constantin Volney’s Les Ruines; ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires, which told of great civilizations of a remote, strange past that had actually vanished from earth. Volney was a wandering French intellectual who had adventured into the mysterious deserts of the Near East and reported the almost unheard-of ruins he saw there—ruins of some civilizations more ancient than those of Greece or Rome.

While Cole was painting his series, the Knickerbocker Magazine was running the stories of John Lloyd Stephens, an American who had penetrated more deeply than Volney into exotic lands of quite forgotten history. Stephens had gone to Mycenae, the Holy Lands, Arabia Petraea, and other far reaches of the world before he plunged into the wilderness of Central America and described the weird remains of high civilizations that had once flourished on our own continent and had long since disappeared beneath the jungle. He was a superb adventure writer and his tales fired the imagination of his generation.

The American mind, so long and comfortably rooted in the classic tradition of Greece and Rome, was getting a disturbing new vision of the past. Was it possible that the course of empire was not to be as Bishop Berkeley had predicted the century before?

Westward the course of empire takes its way;

The four first acts already past,

A fifth shall close the drama with the day:

Time’s noblest offspring is the last.

Might a different ending be written for the fifth act?

Cole himself had observed the ruins of ancient worlds in Sicily and at Paestum, Rome, and Volterra. Like so many of his artistic and literary countrymen he made his pilgrimages to the Old World as a professional “duty”; and, like the rest, he bore the impress of his experiences all his life. On the eve of the painter’s first departure, Bryant, in a sonnet, counseled his friend and kindred spirit to gaze on the antique splendors of Europe “till the tears shall dim thy sight”; but to keep bright that “earlier, wilder image” of their beloved America. To impress that image of natural beauty more brightly on his mind, Cole made one last excursion into the wilderness just before he sailed away from home.

But at Volterra, perched on a cliffside, he shuddered with “awful delight” at the prospect before him. At home he had often mused on the brink of some rocky precipice “without thought of its indestructibility; but here the great mass, bearing the marks of rapid and continuous decay, awakened the instantaneous thought that it was perishable as a cloud.” He practically exhausted the romanticist’s vocabulary trying to describe his impressions. And as he sat under the ruin of an Etruscan wall, “gazing long and silently on the great scene of desolate sublimity,” the theme for The Course of Empire took shape in his mind’s eye.

The commission from Reed almost immediately followed the artist’s return to America. It took him more than three years to complete the assignment, a time during which he himself occasionally tired of the gaud, the glitter, and the tumult which he felt obliged to put on canvas. During those same three years Ralph Waldo Emerson was preparing his first published work. The Course of Empire and Nature appeared almost simultaneously.

Of the two classics Cole’s paintings probably won more immediate favorable attention. But Emerson’s essay reduced to a statement of conviction the dilemma that not only haunted Cole’s work but that bothered a whole generation of American artists and writers in one way or another. In one of his recent pieces Perry Miller has dealt very suggestively with this question that led to so much unresolved confusion in the culture of nineteenth-century America—the obsessive drama, the American theme, he calls it, of Nature versus civilization.

Whatever the age of the rest of the world, America was in its glorious youth in the 1830s. After two generations of successful self-government and rising prosperity, it was prepared to tell the world that it held the key to the future. “We are pioneers of the world,” Herman Melville declared in a moment of unrestrained optimism. “God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The most of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are … the advance guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a path in the New World that is ours.” And to Melville, as to a multitude of others—Europeans as well as Americans—the national virtue which would make all things possible was a lavish gift of Nature. In the works of the landscape painters, the poems of Bryant, the novels of Cooper, and the exhortations of politicians, the very spirit of America was identified with its majestic wilderness preserves; at least with its diminishing remains where, as Hawthorne wrote, “the damned shadow of Europe” had not yet settled.

Emerson was the prophet of this romantic generation. His essay spoke quietly and wisely of those truths that seemed fundamental to the time. He opened a perspective wider and deeper than was visible to the chauvinists of the day; he was concerned with the large problems of human nature and of human destiny in general. And in Nature, he reminded the world, man finds all he knows and all he needs to know, a pronouncement with which Wordsworth, Goethe, and leading romanticists were in sympathy.

But in America Nature was not only a picturesque retreat for the romantic imagination, as we might say it was for Goethe and Wordsworth; it was also a stubborn, wild fact that had to be contended with on a continental scale. It was something that had to be reconciled, not with the hoary past of man, but with his illimitable future. By the eighteenth century, according to one foreign visitor, the American had developed an “unconquerable aversion” to the trees of the unending dark forest that hemmed him in at every turn; he cut all away before him without mercywith positive delight, in fact. It was a practice that continued to horrify English visitors, particularly, until well into the nineteenth century. But Europe had not known forests on such a scale for countless centuries. To travel for days on end through a thick gloom among trees a hundred feet high was oppressing beyond the imagination of people who had not experienced it. To let in the sun was the necessary beginning of the pioneer’s corn patch. And the course of empire was westward, in spite of the trees.

So, while Cole, Bryant, and Cooper courted the Muse of Nature their industrious countrymen persisted in raping the wilderness with lusty abandon. “They are cutting down all the trees in the beautiful valley on which I have looked so often with a loving eye,” Cole wrote his patron; "… maledictions on all our dollar-goaded utilitarians.” The woods along the Hudson were beginning to seem just as perishable as the cliffs and walls at Volterra. And far beyond the reach of his eye—all the way now to Oregon and California—the empire builders were rearing an unsightly superstructure on the face of the virgin earth. Never before in history was the nature of such a large part of the world so radically and rapidly transformed by human industry as it was to be in America. The proud boasts of the continent’s conquerors were issued in the same breath with the hymns to Nature; sometimes, with touching irony, out of the same mouth.

“Yankee enterprise has little sympathy with the picturesque,” warned one reviewer in 1847, “and it behooves our artists to rescue from its grasp the little that is left, before it is forever too late.” Years earlier Audubon had felt that bitter urgency as he noted the inexorable thrust of civilization into the forested homes of his beloved birds. No one, he realized, would ever again be able to see the birds of America as he had seen them and drawn them—and, more than once, slaughtered them beyond all need.

In all this there was a conflict of principle that tore at the conscience of Cole’s and Emerson’s generation. America’s Manifest Destiny was, as the Democratic Review defined it in coining the phrase, “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” This was part of our national mission, acclaimed by patriotic fervor and supported by scriptural authority. One could invoke the ancient distinctions between nature and grace avowed in the Calvinist theology of the Yankee Puritans. To equate the mastery of Nature with the mastery of destiny was a simple operation for the vaunters of progressive democracy.

But the older orthodoxies of religion and the newer orthodoxies of democracy were alike confounded by the romantic veneration of Nature. One could, after all, learn more of mortal evil and of good in one impulse from a vernal wood than from the prescribed authorities, as Wordsworth so sweetly argued; the world of man is too much with us for the good of our immortal souls. It is in Nature, as Emerson reflected, that our spirits will find their true emancipation.

If, as so many agreed, to maintain its unique character and to hold to its great promise America must avoid the “debauching artificialities” of civilization that so surely had corroded all older societies, how could one—without becoming schizophrenic—accept its booming progress that leveled the forests and gouged the hills and that was also its Messianic mission? One could disguise the issue with euphemisms and describe the materialistic speculation as “an immense exertion of the spirit,” as Mr. Miller points out was done. One could shirk the whole problem in a blind faith that somehow, by some peculiar law of nature not clearly formulated or previously applied, things would work out all right in America. (Laissez faire were the magic words.) Or one could wrestle with the question, as Cole did in The Course of Empire, and express the gloomy suspicion that in the end “Time’s noblest offspring” would pay the same price as the Medes and Persians, Etruscans and Mayans, for arrogantly heaping their civilizations on Nature.

Which is to say that his mood was somewhat deeper than the endemic melancholy of romanticism. It is possible to believe, in any case, that his allegory was pointed and, judging from its reception by the more sensitive minds of the day, that it reflected a general foreboding. Could one, with impunity, attempt to build a heaven on earth, as Americans seemed bent to do? Was this roaring material “progress” truly compatible with our national virtue? It is hard to determine whether Cole was more disturbed by the impulse to deny the gospel of civilization for the cult of Nature, which his religious persuasion should have made it difficult to do, or by his apprehension that the denial of Nature, so manifest all about him, was the beginning of still another end to man’s apocalyptic hopes. That, of course, was the nub of his dilemma.

Cole joined the church fairly late in life and approached his subsequent work with a convert’s zeal. Before he died he longed to repaint The Course of Empire as a Christian allegory. One can only wonder how he would have treated the series in these terms.

In a program for his series of paintings for his patron Luman Reed, Cole wrote of each:

I The Savage Stage or The Commencement of Empire

[This first picture of The Course of Empire] "must be a view of a wilderness,—the sun rising from the sea, and the clouds of night retiring over the mountains. The figures must be savage, clothed in skins, and occupied in the chase. There must be a flashing chiaroscuro, and the spirit of motion pervading the scene, as though nature were just springing from chaos."

II The Arcadian or Pastoral State

"The second picture must be the pastoral state,—the day further advanced—light clouds playing about the mountains—the scene partly cultivated—a rude village near the bay—small vessels in the harbor—groups of peasants either pursuing their labors in the field, watching their flocks, or engaged in some simple amusement. ..."

III The Consummation of Empire

"The third must be a noonday,—a great city girding the bay, gorgeous piles of architecture, bridges, aqueducts, temples—the port crowded with vessels—splendid processions, &c.—all that can be combined to show the fulness of prosperity: the chiaroscuro broad."

IV The Destruction of Empire

"The fourth should be a tempest,—a battle, and the burning of the city—towering falling, arches broken, vessels wrecking in the harbour. In this scene there should be a fierce chiaroscuro, masses and groups swaying about like stormy waves.This is the scene of destruction or vicious state."

V The Ruins of Empire

"The fifth must be a sunset,—the mountains riven—the city a desolate ruin—columns standing isolated amid the encroaching waters—ruined temples, broken bridges, fountains, sarcophagi, &c.—no human figure—a solitary bird perhaps: a calm and silent effect. This picture must be as the funeral knell of a departed greatness, and may be called the state of desolation."

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