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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Consider The Course of Empire

(Click directly on all images to enlarge them)

From 1833-1836, American artist Thomas Cole created the following series of five paintings (oil on canvas). The title of the series is The Course of Empire. The literary source for these paintings was the following verse from Byron's from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage:
There is the moral of all human tales;
'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory - when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption - barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page...
Below are photographs of all five paintings from Thomas Cole's series The Course of Empire:

The first painting, The Savage State, shows the valley from the shore opposite the crag, in the dim light of a dawning stormy day. A hunter clad in skins hastens through the wilderness, pursuing a deer; canoes paddle up the river; on the far shore can be seen a clearing with a cluster of wigwams around a fire, the nucleus of the city that is to be. The visual references are those of Native American life.

In the second painting, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, the sky has cleared and we are in the fresh morning of a day in spring or early summer. The viewpoint has shifted further down the river, as the crag with the boulder is now on the left-hand side of the painting; a forked peak can be seen in the distance beyond it. Much of the wilderness has given way to settled lands, with plowed fields and lawns visible. Various activities go on in the background: plowing, boat-building, herding sheep, dancing; in the foreground, an old man sketches what may be a geometrical problem with a stick. On a bluff on the near side of the river, a megalithic temple has been built, and smoke (presumably from sacrifices) arises from it. The images reflect an idealized, pre-urban ancient Greece.

The third painting, The Consummation of Empire, shifts the viewpoint to the opposite shore, approximately the site of the clearing in the first painting. It is noontide of a glorious summer day. Both sides of the river valley are now covered in colonnaded marble structures, whose steps run down into the water. The megalithic temple seems to have been transformed into a huge domed structure dominating the river-bank. The mouth of the river is guarded by two pharoses, and ships with lateen sails go out to the sea beyond. A joyous crowd throngs the balconies and terraces as a scarlet-robed king or victorious general crosses a bridge connecting the two sides of the river in a triumphal procession. In the foreground an elaborate fountain gushes. The overall look suggests the height of ancient Rome.

The fourth painting, Destruction, has almost the same perspective as the third, though the artist has stepped back a bit to allow a wider scene of the action, and moved almost to the center of the river. The action is the sack and destruction of the city, in the course of a tempest seen in the distance. It seems that a fleet of enemy warriors has overthrown the city's defenses, sailed up the river, and is busily firing the city and killing and raping its inhabitants. The bridge across which the triumphal procession had crossed is broken; a makeshift crossing strains under the weight of soldiers and refugees. Columns are broken, fire breaks from the upper floors of a palace on the river bank. In the foreground a statue of some venerable hero (posed like the Borghese Warrior) stands headless, still striding forward into the uncertain future, reminiscent of the hunter in the first painting. The scene is perhaps suggested by the Vandal sack of Rome in 455.

The fifth painting, Desolation, shows the results, years later. We view the remains of the city in the livid light of a dying day. The landscape has begun to return to wilderness, and no human beings are to be seen; but the remnants of their architecture emerge from beneath a mantle of trees, ivy, and other overgrowth. The broken stumps of the pharoses loom in the background. The arches of the shattered bridge, and the columns of the temple are still visible; a single column looms in the foreground, now a nesting place for birds. The sunrise of the first painting is mirrored here by a moonrise, a pale light reflecting in the ruin-choked river while the standing pillar reflects the last rays of sunset.
Is humanity destined to follow the pattern that Thomas Cole depicted in The Course of Empire?


  1. How beautiful. I love the first two images, breathtaking.

    I wish I had some artistic talent, ha.

    Right Truth

  2. A recent exhibit at the Peabody Essex museum had the complete cycle displayed. Quite compelling.

    Will our decline be similar? It won't be by invasion rather I think you'll see a decay caused by the competition for raw materials and global climate change.

  3. We are in a state of decay now. It came from within. It’s called any number of things: leftism, immorality, godlessness, progressivism …

  4. No doubt the ruin-choked river is the Potomac. We can begin anew.

  5. I remember seeing these paintings in New York as a twelve year old. I found them impressive -- if a bit stilted and too patently didactic -- even then.

    I GOT the message at the time, but didn't realize in the morning of my own small life how perilously close were to fulfilling its tragic vision.

    Many have worked with this theme.

    It's a graphic depiction of Alexander Tyler's famous "Cycle."

    Also, look up By the Waters of Babylon, a painfully powerful short story by Stephen Vincent Benet (if I remember rightly) that deals with the changes nuclear holocaust brought to its few survivors several generations after the widespread destruction took place.

    Planet of the Apes, believe it or not, is another variation on the theme, despite its essential "hokiness."

  6. Where is an intimate
    who’ll hear the secret
    from me straight out–
    of what human beings
    have been
    from the moment they began?
    of toil
    and molded
    the clay of sorrow.
    They wander the world for a time,

    --- The Rubaiyat

  7. America's only become more and more "destructive" since morality became more 'liberal' and government's become 'bigger'...
    Mr. Z used to say "we're beginning to emulate the Fall of the Roman Empire here in Western Society..." I thought he was being dramatic but I'm not sure anymore.
    He also used to wonder why Americans were so gleefully voting for positions which put us like Europe, even as we saw how liberality's ridiculous provision of entitlements gone amuk was destroying Europe.

    Gorgeous paintings...talk about detail. They're nothing I'd hang on my walls, but they sure do tell a story! (maybe that's another reason I wouldn't have them on my walls...too clairvoyant!)

  8. How many times does history have to repeat itself before mankind learns?

  9. As Yeats said, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold"

    And the Greeks taught us that it is a true tragedy when we do it to ourselves.

  10. Humanity rises and falls in cycles.

    We're probably due.

  11. "Is humanity destined to follow the pattern that Thomas Cole depicted in The Course of Empire?"

    Well, it always has.

    We pass our days, our time well spent,
    But not spent well, our lives are lent,
    To joys and fears and hopes of reward,
    In youth, energetic, in old age, bored.

    A purpose for life, a reason for being,
    To grasp, comprehend, so blindly unseeing,
    That no higher purpose can ever be known,
    For life, a purpose? Life is it's own.

    A little pome by yers trooly about us hominids and why we do what we do.

  12. I find it odd that liberals are so cavalier about and in some cases cheer for the fall of America.

    The paintings are vivid and worthy of praise but even they prtray what happens when an empire previously dedicated to caring for its people---they die. When then end comes for America (make no mistake it is coming unless we stop its current path) there will be misery and death in abudance. We think of ourselves as good providers but how many can hunt, skin an animal, or grow crops?

    I used to think the leftists were the threat and they are as more and more people think someone else should provide their neeeds and wants but that is only part of the story.

  13. Blogginator,
    In my view, Americans have become their own worst enemy. Yes, Americans have been manipulated into so becoming, but that's no excuse.

    In the end, Obama is not to blame. Rather, the blame falls upon the electorate who voted him into office in 2008 -- and may vote him into office for a second term

    Do I believe that America will fall? Yes. But it will be a slide instead of a crash: boiling the frog. Indeed, in many respects the frog is very nearly boiled.

    We have become an entitlements society -- and Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are only the tip of our entitlements society's iceberg.

    I see the entitlement mentality in so many contexts! Education, hoarding for a hurricane, health care -- everything has become a right in the eyes of the majority of the people. Almost gone are the very concepts of earning one's way and of facing the consequences of one's actions.

    And all the excuses that are posited for every damn thing! Sheesh.

  14. The bankers and the lawyers, greed and perversion into dissolution. All in one envelope to bribe the soul of the nation aspiring for self righteousness.


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