The Course of Empire

Thomas Cole (1801-1847) was an English immigrant who became the most celebrated landscape painter of his era.

Especially popular was his “The Course of Empire,” an allegorical series which questioned whether the United States really would escape the fate of earlier civilizations.

The basic model, upon with the series is constructed, is that supplied by Edward Gibbons, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

At the outset is “Savagery.”

Human figures are small; they made little or no impact upon the environment. Note how small the typees at the lower left are.

Next comes the “Pastoral” or “Acadian” stage.

The human figures are larger there is a temple near the center of the canvas. Meadows and cultivated fields characterize the environment although towering peaks in the distance still speak to an untamed portion of Nature.

The third stage represented the full flowering of civilization.

Nature has disappeared from view. Human activity dominates.

Can human grandeur endure?

No! Humans violently destroy their own civilization.

The end of empire and glory is “Desolation.”

Sic transit gloria…


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