Art / Politics

Paintings of The Day: The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

Before proceeding, permit me to suggest clicking on the pictures below, so that in their enlarged state, they may be more thoroughly appreciated…

1) The Savage State


The first painting, The Savage State, shows a valley from the shore opposite a distinctive crag, in the dim light of a dawning stormy day. A hunter clothed in skins hastens through the wilderness, pursuing a deer; canoes paddle up the river; on the far shore can be seen a clearing cluster of wigwams around a fire, the nucleus of the city that is to be. The visual references are those of Native American life.


1. This mountain appears in every painting of The Course of Empire. Here, Cole places it in the center of the composition, surrounded by storm clouds. Its powerful form suggests that nature is supreme in the savage state. The enormous boulder balanced on its peak may signify the precarious state of humankind in relation to all-powerful nature.

2. Cole’s conception of “primitive” man is a nomadic hunter, with a bow and arrow, pursuing a deer.

3. A deer, injured by the man’s arrow, attempts to flee. This is an indication of man’s efforts to dominate nature, a theme played out in the subsequent paintings in the series.

4. This ghostly figure of a hunter is a pentimento (from the Italian word pentirsi, meaning “to repent” or “to regret”). This form reveals traces of a previous idea about the placement of figures in The Savage State. Cole changed his mind about this figure and painted it over, but now that the pigments have aged, evidence of the artist’s original thoughts about the composition reappear.

5. In this encampment with teepees, native people dance around a fire. The circular form of the teepees recalls Cole’s Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans,” Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund, inspired by James Fenimore Cooper’s novel.

6. Storm clouds symbolize the wildness of nature.

7. Primitive canoes are an allusion to the beginning of transportation and exploration.

8. In the hunter-gatherer stage, men have banded together for the mutual necessities of protection, sustenance, and worship.

2) The Arcadian State


In the second painting, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, the sky has cleared and we are in the fresh morning of a day in spring or early summer. The viewpoint has shifted farther down the river, as the crag with the boulder is now on the left-hand side of the painting; a forked peak can be seen in the distance beyond it. Much of the wilderness has given way to settled lands, with plowed fields and lawns visible. Various activities go on in the background: plowing, boat-building, herding sheep, dancing; in the foreground, an old man sketches what may be a geometrical problem with a stick. On a bluff on the near side of the river, a megalithic temple has been built, and smoke (presumably from sacrifices) arises from it. The images reflect an idealized, pre-urban ancient Greece.


1. The mountain first seen in The Savage State is now more subdued than in the initial painting of the series.

2. A Stonehenge-like structure signifies the beginning of monumental architecture and religion.

3. A farmer replaces the hunter-gather: a sign of permanent settlement.

4. An old man draws figures in the dirt, symbolizing the beginning of science and logic.

5. A young boy draws a primitive stick figure of the woman holding a spinning distaff, symbolizing the origins of drawing and painting. Look closely and you will see Cole’s initials on the bridge below the boy.

6. A tree stump, clearly cut by humans, is a disquieting harbinger of things to come. (Cole often used cut stumps to comment on the negative effects of civilization.)

7. Men and women dancing indicate the beginning of music.

8. A permanent settlement replaces the teepees of The Savage State. Smoke billowing out of the houses suggests human control over nature for domestic purposes.

9. Two mounted horsemen not only allude to human control over animals, but also to future military development.

10. The primitive canoes of The Savage State have evolved into more advanced ships, foreshadowing the beginnings of sea trade and imperial expansion.

11. A woman in classical drapery, carrying a spindle and distaff (a rod for winding thread), may be identified as the mythological figure Clotho, spinner of fate.

12. A boy tends his flock of sheep. The presence of sheep signifies a type of landscape depiction known as the pastoral.

13. The presence, left of center, of a soldier in armor presages the coming of military conflict.

3) The Consummation of Empire


The third painting, The Consummation of Empire, shifts the viewpoint to the opposite shore, approximately the site of the clearing in the first painting. It is noontide of a glorious summer day. Both sides of the river valley are now covered in colonnaded marble structures, whose steps run down into the water. The megalithic temple seems to have been transformed into a huge domed structure dominating the river-bank. The mouth of the river is guarded by two pharoses, and ships with lateen sails go out to the sea beyond. A joyous crowd throngs the balconies and terraces as a scarlet-robed king or victorious general crosses a bridge connecting the two sides of the river in a triumphal procession. In the foreground an elaborate fountain gushes. The overall look suggests the height of ancient Rome.


1. Manmade structures now cover the mountain, which is completely subject to human domination.

2. Of the five paintings in the series, The Consummation of Empire was most influenced by Cole’s trip to Europe in 1829-32. The Greek Doric temple contains pediment sculptures depicting a hunting scene like that in The Savage State. Cole copied the central figure of Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt, from the Hellenistic sculpture Diana of Versailles, which he would have seen in Paris.

3. The 1830s saw a period of intense debate between the populist Democratic party and the elitist Federalist party over how the United States should be governed. Cole, who identified strongly with his aristocratic patrons, supported the Federalists. Some historians believe that this image of a grandiose ruler entering the city in an elephant-drawn car may be an unflattering allusion to the then-current Democratic president, Andrew Jackson.

4. Spears and other military garb suggest a thoroughly militarized society.

5. The statue of Athena symbolizes war and victory.

6. A philosopher stands surveying the scene. Cole’s signature carved into the stone suggests that he identified with this figure’s detached observation.

7. The potted plant symbolizes human control over nature. The vase is modeled after a Greek vessel known as the Borghese Vase, in the collection of the Louvre, which Cole may have seen in Europe.

8. The two boys prefigure events to come: while it appears that the children are playing amicably, the older boy is actually sinking his playmate’s toy ship.

9. A scholar records history as it happens, parallel to Cole’s role in creating another kind of record through pictures.

10. A fountain represents human manipulation and diminishment of the natural elements.

11. Brass trumpets replace the simple flutes of the pastoral state, suggesting a shrill and overblown quality to the cultural developments of the era.

4) The Destruction of Empire


The fourth painting, The Destruction of Empire, has almost the same point of view as the third, though the artist has stepped back a bit to allow a wider scene of the action, and moved almost to the center of the river. The action is, of course, the sack and destruction of the city, in the course of a tempest seen in the distance. It seems that a fleet of enemy warriors has overthrown the city’s defenses, sailed up the river, and is busily burning the city and killing and raping its inhabitants. The bridge across which the triumphal procession had crossed is broken; a makeshift crossing strains under the weight of soldiers and refugees. Columns are broken, fire breaks from the upper floors of a palace on the river bank. In the foreground a statue of some venerable hero stands headless, still striding forward into the uncertain future, reminiscent of the hunter in the first painting. The scene is perhaps suggested by the Vandal sack of Rome in 455.


1. The mountain becomes more visible again, asserting the return of nature.

2. Nature echoes the chaos of the empire’s destruction in the form of storm clouds, wind, and fire.

3. The porch of the Doric temple becomes the base for a catapult, indicating that the violence of civilization has corrupted art and religion.

4. The bridge that once supported the decadent ruler collapses under the weight of the armies.

5. The ships that once promoted trade and exploration now burn and sink in the throes of war.

6. The sculpture of an armed warrior is modeled after another work in the Louvre: the Borghese Gladiator.

7. A mother mourns the loss of her son. Theodore Géricault’s painting Raft of the Medusa (1819) may have inspired this detail.

8. A woman fleeing from a soldier throws herself into the harbor, indicating the collapse of civilization into sexual violence.

5) Desolation


The fifth painting, Desolation, shows the results, years later. We view the remains of the city in the livid light of a dying day. The landscape has begun to return to wilderness, and no human beings are to be seen; but the remnants of their architecture emerge from beneath a mantle of trees, ivy, and other overgrowth. The broken stumps of the pharoses loom in the background. The arches of the shattered bridge, and the columns of the temple are still visible; a single column looms in the foreground, now a nesting place for birds. The sunrise of the first painting is mirrored here by a moonrise, a pale light reflecting in the ruin-choked river while the standing pillar reflects the last rays of sunset. Sic transit gloria mundi.


1. Now that civilization has fallen, the mountain has returned to its natural state and is reestablished as a key feature in the scene.

2. The moon confirms the time of day as evening, thus completing the cycle begun with The Savage State at dawn.

3. A bird builds a nest on top of a column once supporting a temple or palace, while her mate drinks from the pool of water below. This twosome may be an allusion to the pairs of animals that survived the Biblical flood.

4. Nature is slowly reclaiming the ruins of the empire, and although this is a sign of civilization’s end, the architectural fragments have a melancholy beauty.

5. These ruins recall those that Cole sketched on his first trip to Europe (1829-32).

6. First seen being hunted in The Savage State, and then depicted in a frozen state in the frieze from Consummation, deer now freely roam the landscape.

7. The remnants of the frieze in the Doric temple of Consummation signify that nature’s cycles are more powerful than anything constructed by human hands, no matter how exquisite or refined.








13 thoughts on “Paintings of The Day: The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

  1. I love the paintings. Birth, development and end of an empire, as it happened for Rome. True but sad description. Nature dominates over everything.

  2. i’m not too much in love with the ideological scheme… artists are generally not very good thinkers… renaissance painters knew that and invited philosophers and scholars to design their iconography for them… but i do like the paintings a lot. thanks for putting up large images.

    • But the ideas expressed here are perfectly accurate in philosophical terms. A philosopher would have expressed the ideas in a more intellectual and logically explained way, through the written word, whereas the painting communicates more on a subconscious and emotional level. But the essential message would be the same. The paintings perfectly illustrate the cyclical nature of history. What was true of ancient Greece and Rome is now playing out in America in particular, and Western Civilization in general. America is right now in the very late third stage, just about to move into the fourth.

  3. An absolutely incredible suite of paintings, I had the opportunity to see the consumation piece in person. It is very hard to do them justice with pictures, as these works are immense in stature as well as having a high degree of detail.

  4. It’s not only about the nature, but this is human deeds vs. God deeds. Empires rise and collapse as only part of the humanity achivements. But nature still survive, cause it’s a God’s invention.

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  8. I love these paintings. But, I wish there wasn’t such a big jump between The Arcadian State and Consummation of Empire. I feel like there should be at least one other painting between them, like Rise of Empire or Foundation of Empire or something like that.

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