Thomas Cole and the Course of Empire

Topics: Landscape art, Hudson River School, Romanticism Pages: 5 (1573 words) Published: August 21, 2010
Beauty Is Not a Timeless Thing

Thomas Cole is known for his realistic portrayal of American landscapes and his allegorical works (Eisenman 154). He is a Romantic artist because his artwork depicts natural beauty and wilderness that also reflects "his inner feelings and imagination" (Spielvogel 659). In his series of five paintings, Cole reveals his thoughts and feelings in a series of paintings to show the importance of human's coexistence with nature because "beauty is not a timeless thing" (Spielvogel 659).

Cole, an American artist, was born in 1801 in England, but moved to the United States with his family in 1818 ("Thomas 1801"). Being an apprentice in an engraver shop while he was in England, Cole became a professional engraver in Philadelphia in 1823 ("White"). After his first visit to the White Mountains in 1827, Cole spent the rest of his life sketching natural scenery in the Hudson River Valley and its surrounding areas because he was impressed by the beauty of the American countryside ("White"). Cole felt it was his duty "to depict nature, especially American nature, as the visible hand of God" ("White"). He became one of the most famous realistic landscape artists in the United States (Maryk). Upon his return from the visit to the galleries of London and Paris between 1829 and 1832, he began to infuse his personal thoughts and ideas into his artworks (Thomas). He called this "a higher style of landscape" by which he meant historical and allegorical landscape paintings (Eisenman 154). The Course of Empire is one of Cole's most famous series of allegorical works. Based on the same landscape located somewhere at the end of a river valley in the Untied States (Course), Cole adds his imagination and thoughts to a city evolving "from a near state of nature to consummation of empire, and then decline and desolation" (Course). Cole can be said to be a representative of Romantic artist because his emphasis on natural beauty, and because he imbues his feelings and underlying messages into his works (Thomas). The Course of Empire, a five-part painting depicting the growth and fall of an imaginary city, reveals Cole's fondness for nature and his fear of its destruction (Course). In the first painting, The Savage State, Cole shows the "simplicity and beauty" of nature (Thomas), and how the Natives can live in harmony within it. During this state, the valley is in its barbaric stage but filled with lively activities: clouds blanketing the mountain, hunters chasing deer, giant trees waving in the wind, and Native Americans paddling canoes in the creek (Course). This landscape is depicted from far away, and the focus of this painting is a bush-covered cliff surrounded by giant sycamore trees. There are a few teepees clustered around a fire pit at the far right end of the cliff but they are as small as specks of dust. Both humans and animals seem so small and insignificant compared to the vastness of the trees, cliffs, and the mountains. Cole shows this village in its primitive, savage state with all the elements living and interacting in harmony.

In the second painting, The Pastoral State, Cole reemphasizes his fondness for nature, and depicts this half-developed valley in a relatively untainted state on a spring or early summer day (Course). The sky has just been cleared up by fresh wind and the river is filled with calm water (Eisenman 153). In this painting, Cole moves closer to the riverbank. In the background, a newly-built temple can be seen in the midst of the bushes against the purple mountains (Course). In the foreground, people everywhere are enjoying nature and doing whatever they please: shipbuilding, herding, plowing, laughing, and dancing. There is even an old man, who might be Cole himself, in the foreground passing his time drawing in the dirt with a stick. In this painting, Cole shows the grandeur of nature, and how accessible this magnificent mother earth can be enjoyed and utilized by humans....

Cited: Eisenman, F. Stephen. Nineteenth Century Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2002.
Maryk, Michelle
Spielvogel, Jackson. "Reaction, Revolution, and Romanticism, 1815-1850." Western
Civilization, Alternate Volume: Since 1300
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