Course of Empire: Arcadian State (2nd in series)
Cole’s biographer, Louis Noble, offered this assessment of The Course of Empire in 1853:
“In the lifetime of a nation…there is a summit-level, up to which…it carries itself, and down from which it is carried. Moving forward by the force of native energies and passions, there arrives a time when energies are exhausted, and passions vitiated….
A visible manifestation of these truths is the Course of Empiare. It is the pictorial expression of the poet’s view of humanity, in the bonds of a people, travelling in the greatness of its strength, yet with the passport of Providence, with only the cold, innutritious morsels of natural religion, through the cycle of mutation to that point of it…where the divine anger takes its captive, and hastens away with it to destruction….
As a theme of art it is grand. As a theme wholly within the bounds of time, with no living, actual relation, any more than the Iliad, to a life hereafter – to the world of Christian revelation, it has no equal in grandeur in any which has been selected by the painter. As it includes the entire drama of man – man acting only within the lines of this world, without a recognition of the future state brought to light in the gospel, it is, perhaps, the grandest, the most comprehensive topic that lies in the power of selection.
With all this, the subject is yet one of ineffable mournfulness, for the reason that it does not utter the least whisper of hope or consolation. It ends where the true interest of man begins – in the tomb. It points no finger across it – holds up no torch by which to look out of its cold darkness beyond it. And yet, with all the melancholy that hangs around the grandeur of the theme, its compass, originality, and fine invention, the genius, passion, reach and fertility of thought, visible throughout, and all coupled with the greater or less artistic skill with which it is treated, conspire to render the Course of Empire, not only one of Cole’s completest and finest works, but one of the finest in the world….To begin with, I pronounce the Course of Empire a grand epic poem, with a nation for its hero, and a series of national actions and events for his achievements.
The great truth to which all leads, ‘the moral of the strain,’ is the final nothingness of man, when acting only with reference to things on the narrow theater of earth.
As it is impossible for the painter, like the writer, to exhibit every thread and figure of the entire piece of his story, he must show such parts of it as will enable the beholder, through his imagination, to understand those other positions which he does not see.
Accordingly…the artist seizes those great facts, occurring at long intervals, which have in them a power to suggest what transpires between.
He paints us five pictures. In the first…is shown us, not only what the nation-hero is doing at the moment we gaze upon him, but also what he has been doing, and yet will do. The second and third show us the same. In the fourth it is shown us, not indeed what the nation-hero is doing, (for his work is done,) but what he is suffering – what an avenging power is doing with him, and yet will go on to do. What that power has done is shown us in the fifth or last.
Five pictures recite, in the painter’s bright language, to the eye of the beholder, that which affords to his mind the facility and strength to master, with unconscious ease and rapidity, the entire whole of the poet’s fine creation.”
Louis L. Noble, The Course of Empire, Voyage of Life, and Other Pictures of Thomas Cole, N.A. with a Selection of his Life, Character, and Genius. New York: Cornish, Lamport, 1853, pp. 226-9.