The Course of Empire series 1834-36
Oil on canvas
New-York Historical Society
The first painting in the [Course of Empire] series, The Savage State, shows a group of hunter-gatherers amidst a turbulent sunrise in early spring. The last picture, Desolation, features architectural ruins against an elegiac sunset. The three canvases in between represent corresponding moments in the progress of a day, a year, and an empire.
They also represent a profoundly pessimistic vision of Jacksonian society. Completed in 1836 during Andrew Jackson’s second presidential term, Cole’s five canvases suggest the fate awaiting any nation wed excessively to profit and self-interest. Cole viewed Jackson and the Democratic Party with unease. Comprised of a shifting alliance of Western farmers, Southern slaveholders, and small businessmen along the eastern seaboard, the Democratic Party embodied almost everything that Cole feared: commerce, partisanship, and materialism. Cole was especially critical of the myth of progress that underpinned Jacksonian optimism and justified westward expansion. Like many of his patrons he favored a politics of deference, one in which an educated elite exercised a form of benevolent stewardship over others. He feared the vulgarity and ignorance of the mass of men, and he saw the popularity of Andrew Jackson, whom Cole regarded as nothing more than a demagogue, as proof of his fears.
The Course of Empire might be read as Cole’s meditation on the past, present, and future of the American republic. The series expresses not only his ambivalence about the relation of civilization to nature, but his deeper anxiety about the fate of the republic presided over by figures like Jackson and in the grip of unfettered capitalism. Cole countered antebellum notions of progress with an older and more aristocratic understanding of history as cyclical in nature. He believed that no society, however powerful, could endure forever. Civilizations, like individuals, begin in youth and glory but conclude in disillusionment and death. For Cole’s American viewers, the issue was not whether his vision was correct, but whether it applied to them. Was the doom foretold in The Course of Empire—the passage from greatness to destruction—a record of past civilizations or a prophecy about the future of the United States?
The Course of Empire unfolds as a drama of hubris, both individual and collective. Cole’s version of a modern hero-turned-demagogue appears at the lower left of Consummation, the third and largest canvas, presiding over a triumphal procession across the painting’s foreground. In ornate splendor, the red-robed figure surrounds himself, as Cole wrote, with “captives on foot, and a numerous train of guards, senators &c.” This figure is a reference to Andrew Jackson, who was to Cole an American Caesar, a democrat turned military hero, conqueror, and usurper. Cole’s emperor embodies all that can go wrong in society when wealth and status replace the simpler virtues seen in the previous canvas, The Pastoral State. Democracy turns into demagoguery, as a reverence for nature—the central theme of the earlier canvas—degenerates into a worship of power and empire.
The implications are clear. The very principles that propel civilization to its greatest achievements—the ability to reason and abstract, linked in practice with the capacity to conquer and subdue—now spell its doom. What had once existed in The Pastoral State as a celebration of mankind’s higher faculties turns at the moment of Consummation into ostentation and self-congratulation. In that central canvas, despotism replaces republican virtue, and civilization exceeds its rightful limits.
The mountain peak that reigns majestically in the background of the first two canvases is barely visible in Consummation; its sides have been built over with roads, battlements, and terraces. Only in Destruction does nature reassert itself in the form of furious storms, billowing smoke, and rolling waves, and only in Desolation does nature finally settle in for the long, slow task of reclaiming the landscape from the human ruins that litter it.
Cole’s series is thus not about nature but politics. The Course of Empire describes the ways that democracy, when left in the hands of the masses, turns into what anti-Jacksonians like Cole termed “mobocracy.” As cities in the United States felt the first sting of the Industrial Revolution, as wage labor transformed artisans into deskilled workers, as neighborhoods began to swell with foreign immigrants, as the issue of slavery loomed increasingly across the boundaries between North and South, and as partisan party politics replaced earlier, more fluid political boundaries, Cole looked to the future with trepidation. The Course of Empire represents his effort to reinvent landscape art as a mode of moral critique.
—Angela L. Miller, et al., American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (2008)