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.
Thomas Cole’s The Arcadian or Pastoral State reveals Cole’s take on the next stage of society. When examining the previous piece we explored the concept of venturing into the unknown. In this painting Thomas Cole reveals an innocent almost naive perception of life. In the pastoral state, it seems that man has advanced from the state of the savage into wholesome cooperation.
It’s interesting to consider that while our contemporaries in 2016 look upon micro-farming and other forms of “sustainable living” as the ideal and ‘green’ way to live… that back in the 1800’s, schemes for utopian living also existed — and, perhaps most interesting of all is that the perception of what a utopia might be like in 2016 isn’t all that different than it was back in 1836.
In this painting, we see what appear to be strolling philosophers, lovers, friends, farmers, herders, families, and fishermen. Off in the distance appears a building evocative of stonehenge, where a wisp of smoke emanates. Beyond that though, at the furthest mountain clouds lurk around its peak — as if hinting that not all mysteries have been revealed.
It’s also somewhat cool for the viewer when we realize that although the angle on the landscape is different than in the previous painting — that the geographic features are of the same landscape. That Thomas Cole doesn’t give us an entirely different milieu is a nice touch because aside from the thematic unity that ties this series together, we also get a unity of place.