It’s hard to forget the first time I saw The Course of Empire at the Crystal Bridges Museum. They were huge. And if I had looked a little more closely, I might have recognized sooner that there was a reason that five paintings seemed to all depict the same place. At first it was an uncanny coincidence.
The Course of Empire was produced by the American landscape painter Thomas Cole. The series took him four years to complete and was finished in 1836. It is based, so the placard at the museum told me, on Lord Byron’s famous poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Never read it. As I alluded to above, the series depicts the same landscape—the lower end of a river valley near its meeting with a bay—from different vantage points and at different times. In order, The Course of Empire takes the form of “The Savage State,” “The Arcadian or Pastoral State,” “The Consummation of Empire,” “Destruction,” and “Desolation.”
The paintings present the course, or perhaps the cycle, of some unnamed empire. Cycles as seen through a series of paintings is something Cole explored at other times, such as with his famous work Voyage of Life, another highly metaphorical series about life and death. This series, The Course of Empire, was deeply relevant to the American people at the time of its completion. The American empire was growing and the people were doubtful of the benefits.
Aside from meaning, the beauty of each piece is undeniable. The intricate detail in the landscape, typical of the Hudson River School, draws the viewer in. Moreover, Cole is a master of movement in each painting. In “The Savage State,” the hunter chases, and in “Destruction,” the statue strives as the people once had. But in the fifth and final piece, there is stagnation—no movement to be found.
This is fun to do, to reflect on art. Art is crucial to how we understand the human experience, and more superficially, it’s fun to look at or to hear or experience. I try to do that on occasion, to look at art. Hopefully, it’ll teach me something.