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.
For most people whom are familiar with Thomas Cole‘s The Course of Empire series — this painting, The Consummation of Empire and the one that comes after it are often “favorites.” The thing that stands out about this particular work, especially in contrast with the previous one is how Cole goes from a primarily yellow/green color scheme (in the pastoral state), to one that feels more red and white… Yes, there are indeed many yellows, but all that is yellow is obviously meant to be viewed as gold. In the previous painting, the color scheme made all feel soft, warm, and natural — dreamlike even.
In this painting, the color scheme feels hard, cool, artificial, tangible (or real), and decadent. No longer is nature’s place ahead of man, now, nature is presented only as a means of transportation and leisure (the water) OR as a means of ornamentation. You’ll notice that all greenery presented is in the form of potted plants and gardens.
Coles’ detailing of the throngs of people are people presented that are no strangers to luxury. One might even go as far as saying that those presented are indeed no strangers to excess. Everywhere the viewer looks is an opportunity to discover some localized drama going on. Yet, Cole does well to paint the people so packed together yet simultaneously so distant that we are not able to look upon the painting from the perspective of any of the characters he presents — but more simply as a judge.
Though we might look at the painting and be inclined to say “ah, yes — that’s the good life” … we also get the impression that something about this particular good life may be too good to be true. Another phrase that seems applicable to Consummation, especially in light of the next painting is that ignorance is bliss.
It’s worth pointing out that while the previous painting might also be summed up under that headline (ignorance is bliss) the previous painting provides enough ‘breathing room’ for its characters that we the viewer can put ourselves in any one situation with comfort. Here, there is no such ‘breathing room’ for us to empathize with a singular viewpoint. In the following painting, Destruction, we’ll discover some evidence that seems to prove that Cole intentionally wanted the viewer to be distant while viewing Consummation.
|| THOMAS COLE: THE COURSE OF EMPIRE – THE CONSUMMATION OF EMPIRE