9/7/15

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction

New-York Historical Society

Date: 1836
Technique: Oil on canvas, 100.33 x 161.29 cm

The Course of Empire is a five-part series of paintings created by Thomas Cole in the years 1833–36. It is notable in part for reflecting popular American sentiments of the times, when many saw pastoralism as the ideal phase of human civilization, fearing that empire would lead to gluttony and inevitable decay. The theme of cycles is also one that Cole returned to frequently, such as in his The Voyage of Life series.

The series was acquired by The New-York Historical Society in 1858 as a gift of the New-York Gallery of Fine Arts, and comprises the following works: The Course of Empire – The Savage State; The Course of Empire – The Arcadian or Pastoral State; The Course of Empire – The Consummation of Empire; The Course of Empire – Destruction; and The Course of Empire – Desolation.

The series of paintings depicts the growth and fall of an imaginary city, situated on the lower end of a river valley, near its meeting with a bay of the sea. The valley is distinctly identifiable in each of the paintings, in part because of an unusual landmark: a large boulder is precariously situated atop a crag overlooking the valley. Some critics believe this is meant to contrast the immutability of the earth with the transience of man.

A direct source of literary inspiration for The Course of Empire paintings is Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812–18).

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. In the waning light of late afternoon, the dead lie where they fell, in fountains and atop the monuments built to celebrate the affluence of the now fallen civilization. The scene is perhaps suggested by the Vandal sack of Rome in 455.

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