The Course of Empire
Oil on canvas
A five-painting series representing the rise and fall of an imaginary civilization: "The Savage State," "The Arcadian or Pastoral State," "The Consumation of Empire," "Destruction," and "Desolation."
In the late 1820s the young Thomas Cole quickly built a successful career as a painter of Hudson River landscapes, but he harbored ambitions of turning the landscape form to a larger purpose. As early as 1827 he conceived a cycle of paintings that would illustrate the rise and fall of a civilization, and a few years later he began sketching and developing his ideas. The artist attempted unsuccessfully to persuade Robert Gilmor, a Baltimore patron, to commission the series, and in 1833 he secured a commission from New York merchant Luman Reed to paint a cycle of five paintings for the art gallery in his home. In the resulting series, The Course of Empire, Cole presented a cyclical view of history in which a civilization appears, matures, and collapses. The artist's distinctly pessimistic vision differed from that of many of his peers; in the early years of the United States' history, its future was considered limitless. Cole drew from a number of literary sources, such as Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Byron's epic Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. The motto he attached to the series was taken from Byron's popular poem: "First freedom, then glory; when that fails, wealth, vice, corruption." The artist finally settled on a title in 1835, taken from Bishop George Berkeley's 1729 poem, "Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America," which begins "Westward the Course of Empire takes its way." Cole also drew upon paintings he had seen on his recent trip to Europe (1829-32), including the work of J.M.W. Turner and Claude Lorrain. The five paintings follow a dramatic narrative arc, anchored by the imperturbable mountain in the background, and expounded with rich and complex symbolic systems that illustrate this imaginary world's history, including the course of the sun across the sky, the changing relation of man to nature, the role of animals, the arts, and the military, and even the placement and character of his own signature. Luman Reed, Cole's generous patron, did not live to see the completion of the series. He died in June of 1836, but Reed's family encouraged Cole to complete the work. The series was exhibited to great acclaim in New York later that year. The Course of Empire, along with the rest of Reed's collection, became the core of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts. That group of works was donated to the New-York Historical Society in 1858, forming the foundation of its acclaimed collection of American landscape painting.
Morris, G. P., ed., "The Fine Arts," The New-York Mirror, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, Vol. XII, No. 23, December 6, 1834, p. 179. Morris, G. P., ed., "The Fine Arts," The New-York Mirror, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, Vol. XIII, April 2, 1836, p. 318. Morris, G. P., ed., "The Fine Arts," The New-York Mirror, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, Vol. XIV, No. 17, October 22, 1836, p. 135. Morris, G. P., ed., "The Fine Arts," The New-York Mirror, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, Vol. XIV, No. 18, October 29, 1836, p. 142. Clark, Lewis Gaylord, ed. The Knickerbocker, Vol. VIII, No. 5, November, 1836, pp. 81, 630. Morris, G. P., ed., "The Fine Arts," The New-York Mirror, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, Vol. XIV, No. 19, November 4, 1836, p. 150. "Amusements," New York Commercial Advertiser, Vol. XXXIX, Friday, November 4, 1836, n.p. Morris, G. P., ed., "The Fine Arts," The New-York Mirror, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, Vol. XIV, No. 20, November 12, 1836, p. 158. Morris, G. P., ed., "The Fine Arts," The New-York Mirror, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, Vol. XIV, No. 27, December 31, 1836, p. 215. Poe, Edgar Allen, ed., "The New York Gallery of the Fine Arts," The Broadway Journal, I, February 15,1845, pp. 102-103. "Our Pigeon-Holes," Aristidean: A Magazine of Reviews, Politics and Light Literature, March 1845, p. 79. Bryant, William Cullen, Funeral Oration, occasioned by the Death of Thomas Cole, Delivered Before the National Academy of Design, New-York, May 4, 1848, New York, D. Appleton & Company, pp. 23-4, 26. Exhibition of the Paintings of the late Thomas Cole, at the Gallery of the American Art-Union, 1848, pp. 19-20. Noble, Louis Legrand, The Course of Empire, Voyage of life, and Other Pictures of Thomas Cole, N. A., With Selections from his Letters and Miscellaneous Writings: Illustrative of his Life, Character, and Genius, New York: Cornish, Lamport & Company, 1853, n.p. Stillman, W. J. & Durand, J. Eds., "The Artists of America," The Crayon, Vol. VII, No. 2, February 1860, pp. 45-6. Hone, Philip, The Diary of Philip Hone 1828-1851, New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1889, p. 236. Durand, John, The Life and Times of Asher B. Durand, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1894; Reprint, Hensonville, NY: Black Dome Press, 2007), p. 124. Caffin, Charles H., The Story of American Painting: The Evolution of Painting in America from Colonial Times to the Present, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1907, pp. 66, 69-70. Mather, Frank Jewett, Morey, Charles Rufus, and Henderson, William James, The Pageant of America: The American Spirit in Art, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1927, p. 43. Isham, Samuel, The History of American Painting, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1936, pp. 225-6. Sweet, Frederick A. "Asher B. Durand, Pioneer, American Landscape Painter," The Art Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring, 1945, pp. 141, 153. Howe, Winifred E., A History of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a Chapter on the Early Institutions of Art in New York. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1946, pp. 62-7 Thomas Cole: One Hundred Years Later, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT 1948, pp. 10-1. Tunnard, Christopher, "Reflections on the Course of Empire and other Architectural Fantasies of Thomas Cole, N.A.," The Architectural Review, Vol. 104, December 1948, pp. 291-294. Davidson, Marshall, "Whither the Course of Empire?" American Heritage, October 1957, pp. 52-5, 58-61, 104. Flexner, James Thomas, That Wilder Image: The Painting of America's Native School from Thomas Cole to Winslow Homer, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962, pp. 49-58, 108, 354. McCoubrey, John, American Tradition in Painting, New York: G. Braziller, 1963, p. 65. Exhibition at Kennedy Galleries, New York, 1964, pp. 14, 26-7. Noble, Louis Legrand, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole, Hensonville, New York: Black Dome Press, 1964, pp. 103, 112, 129-131, 149-50, 155, 157-9, 164-74, 264, 268, 287. Wallach, Alan P., "The Origins of Thomas Cole's 'Course of Empire,'" M.A. Thesis, Columbia University, 1965. Lawall, David B., Asher Brown Durand: His Art and Art Theory in Relation to His Times, PhD Dissertation, Princeton, 1966, pp. 170-92, 288-9. Callow, James T., Kindred Spirits: Knickerbocker Writers and American Artists, 1807-1855, Durham, North Carolina, The University of North Carolina Press, 1967, p. 157. Annual II: Studies on Thomas Cole, An American Romanticist, Baltimore, Maryland: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1967, pp. 72-4. Wallach, Alan P., "Cole, Byron, and the Course of Empire," The Art Bulletin, Vol. 50, No. 4, December 1968, pp. 375-9. Dunlap, William, A History of the Rise and Progress of The Arts of Design in the United States, A Reprint of the Original 1834 Edition with a New Introduction by James Thomas Flexner, Vol. 2, Part 2, New York: Dover Publications, 1969, p. 366. Baur, John I. H., The Autobiography of Worthington Whittredge 1820-1910, New York: Arno Press, 1969, pp. 40-1. Parry, Elwood, Thomas Cole's "The Course of Empire:" A Study in Serial Imagery, PhD Dissertation, Yale, 1970, pp. 254-60. Glassie, Henry H., "Thomas Cole and Niagara Falls," The New-York Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. LVIII, No. 2, April 1974, p. 89. Novak, Barbara, "The Double-Edged Axe," Art in America, Vol. 64, No. 1, Jan.-Feb. 1976, pp. 44-50. New York State Museum, New York: The State of Art, Albany, New York: The New York State Museum, 1977, pp. 25, 30-1, and exhibition catalog, Mann, Maybelle, The American Art-Union, Jupiter FL: ALM Associates, c. 1977, pp. 15-7. Davidson, Abraham A., The Eccentrics and Other American Visionary Painters, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978, pp. 16-9, 138. Lynes, Russell, "Luman Reed: A New York Patron," Apollo, Vol. 107, No. 192, 1978, pp. 124-9. Cikovsky Jr., Nicolai, "'The Ravages of the Axe:" The Meaning of the Tree Stump in Nineteenth-Century American Art," The Art Bulletin, Vol. 61, No. 4, Dec., 1979, pp. 611-26. Craven, Wayne, "Luman Reed, patron: His Collection and Gallery," The American Art Journal, Vol. XII,, Spring 1980, pp. 43, 45, 50-6. Parry III, Ellwood C., "Thomas Cole's Ideas for Mr. Reed's Doors," The American Art Journal, Vol. XII,, Summer 1980, pp. 33-45. Baigell, Matthew, Thomas Cole, New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1981, pp. 16-9, 49-50, 52, 82. Treuttner, William H., "The Art of History: American Exploration and Discovery Scenes, 1840-1860," The American Art Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Winter 1982, pp. 4-31. Kasson, Joy S., Artistic Voyagers: Europe and the American Imagination in the Works of Irving, Allston, Cole, Cooper and Hawthorne, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982, 84-90, 111-129. Koke, Richard J., American Landscape and Genre Paintings in the New-York Historical Society, Vol. I, New York: The New-York Historical Society, 1982, pp. 192-200. Tammenga, Michael J., The Beautiful, the Sublime, and The Picturesque: British Influences on American Landscape Painting, St. Louis Missouri: Washington University, 1984, p. 57. Maddox, Kenneth W., "Thomas Cole and the Railroad: Gentle Maledictions," Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1, 1986, pp. 2-10. Kelly, Franklin, and Carr, Gerald L., The Early Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church, 1845-1854, Fort Worth, Texas: Amon Carter Museum, 1987, p. 66. Menefee, Ellen Avitts, The Early Biblical Landscapes of Thomas Cole (1825-1829), Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI, 1987, p. 40, 80, 145. Miller, Angela, "Thomas Cole and Jacksonian America: The Course of Empire as Political Allegory," Prospects, Vol. 14, 1989, pp. 65-92. Powell, Earl A., Thomas Cole. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990, pp. 62-71, 184. Foshay, Ella M., Luman Reed's Picture Gallery: Pioneer Collection of American Art, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990, pp. 59-61, 130-40, 207-8. Platt, Susan, "Paradigms and Paradoxes: Nature, Morality, and Art in America," Art Journal, Vol. 51, No. 2, Summer 1992, pp. 82-88. Bryant II, William Cullen, Highlands Sketches: The Hudson River in the Eye of the Beholder, Mount Taurus Press, Nelsonville, New York: 1993, p. 13. Bailey, Brigitte, "The Protected Witness: Cole, Cooper, and the Tourist's View of the Italian Landscape," American Iconology: New Approaches to Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1993, pp. 92, 110. Daniels, Stephen, Fields of Vision: Landscape Imagery and National Identity in England and the United States, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993, pp. 158-161. Robinson, Christine T., Guest Curator, Thomas Cole: Drawn to Nature, Albany, NY: Albany Institute of History & Art, 1993, pp. 34, 49-50, 52. Griffin, Randall C., "The Untrammeled Vision: Thomas Cole and the Dream of the Artist," Art Journal, Vol. 52, No. 2, Summer 1993, pp. 71. Nutty, Carolyn Sue Himelick, Joseph Harrison, Jr. (1810-1874): Philadelphia Art Collector, Vol. I, dissertation submitted to the faculty of the University of Delaware in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Art History, Fall 1993, pp. 47-8. Caldwell, John and Roque, Oswaldo Rodriguez, American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vol. I, A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born by 1815, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994, pp. 459-61. Wallach, Alan, "Museums and Resistance to History," The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 21, 1994, pp. B3-5. Cooper, James F., Knights of the Brush: The Hudson River School and the Moral Landscape, New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1999, pp. 31, 45-8, 77, 80. Koja, Stephan, Ed. AMERICA: The New World in 19th-Century Painting, Munich: New York: Prestel, 1999, pp. 25-7, 215, 235. Goldfarb, Hilliard T., Hirschler, Erica E., Lears, T. J. Jackson, Sargeant: The Late Landscapes, Boston: University Press of New England, 1999, pp. 8-9. New-York Historical Society, Perspectives on the Collections of the New-York Historical Society, New York: The New-York Historical Society, 2000, p. 28-30. Georgi, Karen L., "Asher B. Durand's American Landscapes and the Nature of Representation," PhD Dissertation, Boston University, 2000, pp. 115-7. Bedell, Rebecca, The Anatomy of Nature: Geology & American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001, pp. 26, 29, 33, 36, 38-41, 45. Wilton, Andrew & Barringer, Tim, American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880, London: Tate, 2002, pp. 23-4, 46, 51-3, 87, 95-109. Belli, Gabriella, Giacomoni, Paola, Cavino, Anna Ottani, curators, Montagna: Arte, scienza, Mito da Durer a Warhol, Milano: Skira, 2003, pp. 189-201. Simon, Janice, "Impressed in Memory: John Frederick Kensett's Italian Scene," Classic Ground: Mid-Nineteenth Century American Painting and the Italian Encounter, Athens, Georgia: Georgia Museum of Art, 2004, pp. 51-69. Payne, Christine, and Vaughn, William, eds., English Accents: Interactions with British Art c. 1776-1853, Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004, pp. 10, 246. Burgard, Timothy Anglin, Ed., "Thomas Cole, Prometheus Bound," Masterworks of American Painting at the De Young, San Francisco: Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2005, pp. 70-3, 483-4. Ramirez, Jan Seidler, "A History of the New-York Historical Society," The Magazine Antiques, January 2005, pp. 140-1. Vedder, Lee A., "Nineteenth-century American paintings," The Magazine Antiques, January, 2005, pp. 148-9. De Salvo, Donna and Norden, Linda, "Course of Empire: Waste and Retrieval," Course of Empire, Exhibition Publication for the United States Pavilion at the 51st International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, June 12-November 6, 2005, n.p. McDaniel, Amy Ellis, "Works on Paper by Thomas Cole in the Detroit Institute of Arts," Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Vol. 80, No. ½, 2006, pp. 16-25. Keck, Michaela, Walking in the Wilderness: The Peripatetic Tradition in Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Painting, Heidelberg: Winter, 2006, pp. 71-3, 75, 77. Novak, Barbara, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 47-8, 51, 54. Kornhauser, Elizabeth M., "The Hudson River School: Landscape Art in America, 1820-1870," America: Storie di pittura dal Nuovo Mondo", Italy: Linea d'Ombra Libri, 2007, p. 28. Hirshler, Erica Eve, "Nineteenth Century American Painters in Italy's 'Great University of Art,'" America: Storie di pittura dal Nuovo Mondo", Italy: Linea d'Ombra Libri, 2007, p. 75
Gift of The New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts
Luman Reed, d. 1836; Mrs. Luman Reed, New York, 1836-44; New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1844-58.
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.