The Course of Empire (paintings)

The Course of Empire is a series of five paintings created by Thomas Cole in the years 1833–1836. It is notable in part for reflecting popular American sentiments of the times, when many saw pastoralism as the ideal phase of human civilization, fearing that empire would lead to gluttony and inevitable decay. The theme of cycles is one that Cole returned to frequently, such as in his The Voyage of Life series. The Course of Empire comprises the following works: The Course of Empire – The Savage State; The Arcadian or Pastoral State; The Consummation of Empire; Destruction; and Desolation. All the paintings are 39.5 inches by 63.5 inches (100 cm by 161 cm) except The Consummation of Empire which is 51" by 76" (130 cm by 193 cm).

Portrait of Thomas Cole by Asher B. Durand, 1837.


Cole's 1833 sketch for the arrangement of the paintings around Reed's fireplace: the sketch also shows above the paintings three aspects of the Sun: left (rising); center (zenith); right (setting)
The Savage State The Consummation Destruction
The Arcadian or Pastoral State Desolation

The series of paintings depicts the growth and fall of an imaginary city, situated on the lower end of a river valley, near its meeting with a bay of the sea. The valley is distinctly identifiable in each of the paintings, in part because of an unusual landmark: a large boulder is situated atop a crag overlooking the valley. Some critics believe this is meant to contrast the immutability of the earth with the transience of man.

A direct source of literary inspiration for The Course of Empire paintings is Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812–18). Cole quoted lines from Canto IV in his newspaper advertisements for the series:[1]

First freedom and then Glory – when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption...

Cole designed these paintings to be displayed prominently in the picture gallery on the third floor of the mansion of his patron, Luman Reed, at 13 Greenwich Street, New York City.[2] The layout was approximately as shown here, according to Cole's installation diagram.[3] The series was acquired by The New-York Historical Society in 1858 as a gift of the New-York Gallery of Fine Arts.[4]

The Course of EmpireEdit

The Savage StateEdit

The Savage State. Oil on canvas, 1834, 39 ½ × 63 ½ in.[5]

The first painting, The Savage State, shows the valley from the shore opposite the crag, in the dim light of a dawning stormy day. Clouds and mist shroud much of the distant landscape, hinting at the uncertain future. A hunter clad in skins hastens through the wilderness, pursuing a fleeing deer; canoes paddle up the river; on the far shore can be seen a clearing with a cluster of tipis around a fire, the nucleus of the city that is to be. The visual references are those of aboriginal North American life. This painting depicts the ideal state of the natural world. It is a healthy world, unchanged by humanity.

The Arcadian or Pastoral StateEdit

The Arcadian or Pastoral State. Oil on canvas, 1834, 39 ½ × 63 ½ in.[6]

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 summer. The viewpoint has shifted further 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. This work shows humanity at peace with the land. The environment has been altered, but not so much so that it or its inhabitants are in danger. Yet the construction of the warship and the concerned mother watching as her child sketches a soldier, herald the emerging imperial ambitions.

The Consummation of EmpireEdit

The Consummation of Empire. Oil on canvas, 1836, 51 × 76 in.[7][8]

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 pharoi, and ships with lateen sails go out to the sea beyond. A joyous crowd gathers on the balconies and terraces as a scarlet-robed king or victorious general crosses a bridge connecting the two sides of the river in a triumphant procession. In the foreground, an elaborate fountain gushes. The look of the painting suggests the height of ancient Rome. The decadence seen in every detail of this cityscape foreshadows the inevitable fall of this mighty civilization.


Destruction. Oil on canvas, 1836, ​39 12 × ​63 12 in.[9]

The fourth painting, Destruction, has almost the same perspective 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 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 busy ransacking the city and killing its inhabitants and raping women.[10] The bridge across which the triumphant procession had crossed is broken; a makeshift crossing strains under the weight of soldiers and refugees. Columns are broken, and fire breaks from the upper floors of a palace on the river bank.

In the foreground a statue of some venerable hero (posed like the Borghese Gladiator) stands headless, still striding forward into the uncertain future.[a] In the waning light of late afternoon, the dead lie where they fell, in fountains and atop the monuments built to celebrate the affluence of the now fallen civilization. The scene is perhaps suggested by the Vandal sack of Rome in 455. On the other hand, a detail in the lower right of "The Consummation of Empire" shows two children, maybe brothers, fighting, one clad in red and the other in green—the colors of banners of the two contending forces in "Destruction," which thus might depict a foreshadowed civil war. The children, now men, are shown, with one having finally prevailed over the other but seemingly in contemplation of the heavy price paid.


Desolation. Oil on canvas, 1836, 39 ½ × 63 ½ in.[11]

The fifth painting, Desolation, shows the results decades 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 humans 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 pharoi 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. This gloomy picture suggests how all empires could be after their fall. It is a harsh possible future in which humanity has been destroyed by its own hand.

This cycle reflects Cole's pessimism, and is often seen as a commentary on Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party. (Note, for instance, the military hero at the center of "Consummation.")[12] However, some Democrats had a different theory of the course of empire. They saw not a spiral or cycle but a continuing upward trajectory. Levi Woodbury, a Democrat and a justice of the United States Supreme Court, for instance, responded to Cole by saying that there would be no destruction in the United States.[13]


  1. ^ The artist's name and date 1836 can just be seen on the base of the statue


  1. ^ Hay, John. Postapocalyptic Fantasies in Antebellum American Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  2. ^ "About the Series: The Course of Empire". Retrieved May 31, 2016.
  3. ^ "Installation Diagram for the Course of Empire". Retrieved May 31, 2016.
  4. ^ New-York Historical Society eMuseum
  5. ^ "The Course of Empire: The Savage State". ExploreThomasCole. Retrieved March 20, 2011.
  6. ^ "The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State". ExploreThomasCole. Retrieved March 20, 2011.
  7. ^ "The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire". ExploreThomasCole. Retrieved March 20, 2011.
  8. ^ "The Paintings". Beyond the Notes: The Course of Empire. Retrieved October 23, 2014.
  9. ^ "The Course of Empire: Destruction". ExploreThomasCole. Retrieved March 20, 2011.
  10. ^ Chrystal, Paul (February 28, 2017). Women at War in the Classical World. Grub Street Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4738-5661-5.
  11. ^ "The Course of Empire: Desolation". ExploreThomasCole. Retrieved March 20, 2011.
  12. ^ Lawrence Kohl, The Politics of Individualism: Parties and the American Character in the Jacksonian Era (1989).
  13. ^ Alfred L. Brophy, "Property and Progress: Antebellum Landscape Art and Property Law," McGeorge Law Review 40 (2009): 601.


  • Miller, Angela (1993). The Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825–1875. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.
  • Noble, Louis Legrand (1853). The Life and Works of Thomas Cole. Black Dome Press.
  • Powell, Earl A. (1990). Thomas Cole. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
  • Comegna, Anthony (March 25, 2016). "Art as Ideas: Thomas Cole's The Course of Empire". Retrieved December 10, 2019.