Thomas Cole The Course Of Empire Destruction Highlark

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.

In the previous post we talked about how it seemed that Thomas Cole intentionally avoided giving the viewer a specific ‘point of view’ into the painting; that he didn’t want us to empathize with the characters presented, only to judge them. What seems to be the proof of those intentions in The Consummation of Empire is the presentation of our current work for analysis: Destruction.

For starters, Destruction is presented almost as “the effect” of Consummation (which is presented almost as “the cause”). It doesn’t seem only presented as an effect because it is the next installment in the series, but because Cole shifts the perspective presenting a more all-encompassing view — one can take in Destruction in a single breadth whereas one’s eye would necessarily have to flit from one point to another in the previous painting.

Destruction also has several unique viewpoints. The most dramatic viewpoint into the painting is the wrathful statue armed with a real iron shield. This wrathful statue seems to be Cole’s take on what judgment he thinks might be fitting for the scene portrayed in the previous work. This wrathful statue, faceless, perhaps even headless, seems trudging into battle as the harbinger of war. If one looks closely though, one will notice what appear to be peasants pleading with this statue — as if this thing they had worshipped could protect them from whatever evils are being dealt them. It’s almost ironic that people would be pleading to this thing for protection while Cole is simultaneously portraying it in the aforementioned light.

The second most dramatic viewpoint (where we are inclined to look next) is the woman whom is either committing suicide to save herself from being ravaged by the soldier reaching out for her — or, depending on one’s interpretation — perhaps she’s being thrown into the ocean. Personally, I believe she’s committing suicide because the soldier seems to be reaching as opposed to pushing. While the faceless hoards of warriors churn about like the sea and smoke filled sky, this woman in white stands out as an individual.

Lastly, the other characters we’re inclined to notice are the hooded figure in green sitting near a broken chunk of marble looming over a dead body (might he be Death personified?); the wounded philosopher dying in a puddle; and the archer shooting down into the crowd. For all those presented — the perspective of futility and horror seems universal.

As for the landscape itself, the raging fire and swirling clouds seem to work together to evoke the feeling of a tunnel or vortex. Cole also paints all the “extras” superbly, in that though they may be support characters — they’re never ‘so much background’ that an examination renders them without purpose. Coming up next is Cole’s conclusion to the series: Desolation.


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Thomas Cole The Course Of Empire Destruction Highlark

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