Thomas Cole: The Course Of Empire - The Savage State | 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.

Like a great film a whole is more than the sum of its parts. Yet, Thomas Cole’s individual parts (in this series) all serve as ideal creations in and of themselves. Beginning with The Savage State we see the sun rising on a primal landscape complete with hunter/gatherers — a ‘savage’ with bow and arrow appears to be making his way out of dawn’s light and into a wilderness both dark and unknown. We see inklings of civilization with the teepees as well as inklings of innovation: the canoes.

That the painting transitions from light to darkness, with our bow & arrow savage — we get the impression that man is coming of his own and will thus conquer the unknown. Nature which is presented as dark and foreboding also has an almost mystical quality in thanks to the fog and cloud shrouded mountains. It appears a storm is brewing in the distance.

Now, we might be inclined to say that the storm brewing in the distance could be symbolic of man’s coming effect on the natural world — but that might be too “contemporary-looking-back.” However, it may be more accurate to say that the brewing storm represents the unknown simply as the unknown. It goes without saying that the “unknown” is often simultaneously alluring and frightening because it is full of latent possibility — much in the way that a storm is visually captivating and full of energy.

When this was completed in 1836, the world was changing — America and France had both completed their revolutions — enlightenment thinking had lead to various leaps the world. From 1800 to 1836, inventions as diverse as the steam locomotive, the photograph, the electromagnet, the soda fountain and many more were making appearances. Thomas Cole’s The Savage State seems to capture that general feeling about the unknown that he and his contemporaries probably shared about technology of his day. Interestingly, it seems that in the almost 200 years that have past since the completion of this painting… our contemporary views about our relationship with technology hasn’t changed all that much.

For the prominently featured Savage with his bow and arrow… the unknown is both full of promise and premonition — and it is up to him to venture forth and make what he will of it. Where man’s choices lead him are revealed in the subsequent paintings.

Next up is The Arcadian or Pastoral State.


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Thomas Cole: The Course Of Empire - The Savage State | Highlark
The Savage State

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