Thomas Cole‘s The Course of Empire is an epic five piece telling of the rise and fall of Rome. The paintings proceed as such: The Savage State, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, The Consummation of Empire, Destruction, and Desolation. If you’re a New Yorker, you’re in luck! You can see The Course of Empire series live at The New York Historical Society.
Today we take a look at Thomas Cole‘s not-so-shocking conclusion to his Course of Empire series conclusion: Desolation. I say not so shocking because after all that’s come before it, it seems almost par the course that Cole would present his denouement free of any characters — except perhaps a nesting bird atop the ruined column.
Looking at this painting as an individual work (out of context) we see a dreamy moonscape where man is nowhere to be found, although it’s clear that man has left his mark on the land. Seeing the decay of such magnificent structures that are now completely abandoned makes them seem worse then abandoned but almost cursed. The primal state of things, that nature has grown back wild and savage to reclaim man’s creations for its own makes the landscape both mysterious and frightening. Mysterious because the landmarks man has left behind are so ‘great’ as to boggle one’s mind as to why they might be abandoned. Frightening for the very reason that they ARE mysterious AND that they are abandoned.
Considering Cole’s denouement (Desolation) in the context of the earlier works from this series — it seems he’s telling us that society is a gift (as its presented in the pastoral state), but that if man stray too far from his ‘natural state’ that the only place to go from there is down. It would seem this final painting goes further than simply saying “if man aims too high he is destined to fail,” but perhaps that man will also be punished. The lack of any human beings in this painting seem to say “if man cannot fit in with nature, then nature will do without man.”
Strangely though, the painting feels more wistful than pessimistic. Perhaps that’s because we, as human beings, are inclined to tell ourselves: “yes, that may have happened to the Romans… but, not us.” This final painting is more beautiful than a natural landscape because it bares the mark of man. And, though the painting is devoid of human life, the presence of natural life, namely the plants and birds, seem almost an allusion to the reference that it will be the meek whom inherit the Earth.
The still waters and airy clouds also provide for a sense of a waking dream. All is strange yet simultaneously feels as if it’s exactly as it should be — or even, all there ever was.
The thing I love most about The Course of Empire series is that each painting works as an individual whole, but also as a functioning part within the series. It’s not quite “a movie” but the progression feels inherently cinematic — almost like a story in five acts.