Dignity and Destruction: Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire

Abigail Leali dives deep into Thomas Cole’s five-painting series Course of Empire, exploring its meaning, themes, and context. The people at the end phase of Cole’s Course of Empire series were decadent to the point of folly. Not only did they lack empathy in engaging with each other, selfishly pursuing their own pleasure at the expense of others, including subjugating neighboring peoples, but they were also heedless even of their own children and grandchildren. It is revealed that no matter how beautiful their richly adorned cities, these people – so distant from love as to sacrifice others for their own comfort – have become calloused, even towards their future selves. As people lost themselves in a daydream of sensuality and false immortality, their greed and lust for power continued to degrade them from within and muster enemies from without. And now their children pay the real price for their illusions.

By Abigail Leali for Mutual Art


There is the moral of all human tales:

‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past,

First Freedom, and then Glory—when that fails,

Wealth, vice, corruption—barbarism at last.

And History, with all her volumes vast,

Hath but ONE page,—’tis better written here,

Where gorgeous Tyranny hath thus amassed

All treasures, all delights, that eye or ear,

Heart, soul could seek, tongue ask—Away with words! draw near,

Admire, exult—despise—laugh, weep—for here

There is such matter for all feeling:—Man!

Thou pendulum betwixt a smile and tear,

Ages and realms are crowded in this span,

This mountain, whose obliterated plan

The pyramid of empires pinnacled,

Of Glory’s gewgaws shining in the van

Till the sun’s rays with added flame were filled!

Where are its golden roofs? where those who dared to build?

So muses Lord Byron in Canto IV, stanzas 108-109 of his narrative poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which features a disillusioned hedonist’s Solomonic impressions as he travels the world and finds its various pleasures and passions hopelessly wanting.

In Thomas Cole’s advertisements for his Course of Empire series, he invokes Lord Byron’s elegiac observation as an epigraph of sorts. The five paintings, which span from the earliest stages of a prototypical ancient Mediterranean culture to its complete eradication, appear on the surface to be a cut-and-dried allegory about the various joys and pitfalls of living in community. But over their narrative arc, Cole wields his masterful skill for detailed landscapes and resplendent monuments to grapple with the transience of civilization. He questions their apparently inevitable tendency to bring about their own decline through hubris, hatred, selfishness, and greed. He also contemplates their complex, troubled relationship with nature.

The cultural and thematic content of the paintings suggest that Cole was especially attuned to the Ancient Greek philosophical concept of kyklos. First posited by Plato, the theory characterizes government as a cycle in which the rule of just people eventually devolves into mob rule and finally tyranny. At this last stage, the society finally collapses. While Aristotle would assert that this collapse marked the death of the civilization, Plato believed it could then begin anew. Regardless, kyklos was seen as a tragic, destructive process, and the Greek philosophers sought many ways to escape it, including Plato’s famous “philosopher-king”. Cole, however, brings to the table a distinctly Judeo-Christian perspective. No political institution, he seems to warn, could be enough on its own to bring about world peace. Instead, it is what the everyday people prioritize – how they treat each other, their institutions, nature, the sacred – that brings about their glory or destruction.

This is a message that would have resonated with the generations immediately following the French Revolution, still reeling from what they saw as a catastrophic blow to the Judeo-Christian foundations of Western civilization. Rudyard Kipling sums up the generation’s fears in his sardonic poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”:

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man

There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.

That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,

And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire.

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins

When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,

As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,

The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Throughout the nineteenth century, all eyes watched anxiously the development of culture. Optimistic humanists’ hopes for social stability clashed with those who were more cynically resigned to the realities of war, plague, famine, and death – all of which would indeed rack the world within the next century. While in our modern political discourse we often implicitly assume that social institutions could provide an answer for the erratic, sometimes downright terrifying behavior of individuals, in the 1800s many in both the Old and New Worlds felt an immense pressure to hold together the vestiges of the fragmenting aristocracy, fearing that without it the world could decline into outright anarchy. Some sagged under the weight of this burden; others recalled longingly a quasi-mythical version of Europe’s past; still others founded short-lived utopian communities in hopes of building a better world.

Immersed in this complex atmosphere of uncertainty, fear, and hope, The Course of Empire’s meaning, while in one sense still just as narratively straightforward, takes on richer detail and nuance. True to Victorian form, Cole looks to the past – or rather, to the pastoral – for the key to society’s ailments. And yet, unlike some of the pure utopians of this time, he is unable to escape his fascination with the untread wilderness that lies beyond it or with the marvels of art and architecture that, bafflingly, seem to reach their pinnacle only in the most stable of aristocratic cultures.

Cole himself provided descriptions of the paintings for volume VIII of The Knickerbocker in 1836, including brief interpretations for each piece. Even in these simple descriptions, a network of allusions, connections, and cultural circumstances turn his allegory into a complex meditation on the relationship between nature, society, and ethics. Yet before we can reach these deeper levels of interpretation, we first need to establish a foundation based on Cole’s own perspective and values. His descriptions will form the bedrock of our interpretations and will be the focus of the next two articles in this series.


On one level, Thomas Cole makes the art historian’s job blessedly simple. A master of marketing, Cole took full advantage of the fast-expanding periodicals and newspapers of the nineteenth century to publicize his work and drum up interest. His efforts not only made him one of those rare artists whose talents were recognized even within his own lifetime, but they also helped pull back the veil of history for future generations. While far from a complete analysis, Cole’s descriptions signal to modern viewers what he most wanted his contemporaries to notice – and what he most thought they wanted to see. Because they are so accessible, I will be quoting them in their entirety over the course of the next two articles, taking advantage of the opportunity to explore what they reveal about Cole’s Victorian perspective on each of the stages of his empire, before moving on to study some key themes in more depth.

Thomas Cole, The Savage State, or The Commencement of Empire, from The Course of Empire series, 1834

The Commencement of Empire

No. 1., which may be called the ‘Savage State,’ or ‘the Commencement of Empire,’ represents a wild scene of rocks, mountains, woods, and a bay of the ocean. The sun is rising from the sea, and the stormy clouds of night are dissipating before his rays. On the farthest side of the bay rises a precipitous hill, crowned by a singular isolated rock, which, to the mariner, would ever be a striking land-mark. As the same locality is represented in each picture of the series, this rock identifies it, although the observer’s situation varies in the several pictures. The chase being the most characteristic occupation of savage life, in the fore-ground we see a man attired in skins, in pursuit of a deer, which, stricken by his arrow, is bounding down a water-course. On the rocks in the middle ground are to be seen savages, with dogs, in pursuit of deer. On the water below may be seen several canoes, and on the promontory beyond, are several huts, and a number of figures dancing round a fire. In this picture, we have the first rudiments of society. Men are banded together for mutual aid in the chase, etc. The useful arts have commenced in the construction of canoes, huts, and weapons. Two of the fine arts, music and poetry, have their germs, as we may suppose, in the singing which usually accompanies the dance of savages. The empire is asserted, although to a limited degree, over sea, land, and the animal kingdom. The season represented is Spring.

Cole, following the prevailing theory of social development of his day, begins his mythic empire with a loosely banded community, overwhelmed in the composition by the massive, towering expanse of wilderness before them. Out of necessity, these men and women focus on providing for their physical needs, but they have already begun to adorn their lives with at least a couple nonessential beauties: music and poetry. This Spring may be harsh in comparison to docile flowerbeds and soft rains, but the clouds are beginning to disperse, and the warm sun is about to rise.

While calling these people “savage” certainly reflects the damaging sense of cultural superiority common in the Western empires of the nineteenth century, Cole, rather than separating off this stage of society as “primitive,” focuses instead on drawing connections between this form of life and the others that will follow it, showing how it is a necessary, even beautiful step on the path to the very empires that imperialists so revered. The “Savage State,” for Cole, is not chaotic violence and ignorance but the noble beginning of a dignified people. What the so-called “Savage State” lacks in time and resources, it makes up for in communal effort, resourcefulness, and creativity. And in the next painting Cole acknowledges with gratitude that their effort and sacrifice has made possible a more comfortable and fulfilling life for their children.

Thomas Cole, The Simple or Arcadian (Pastoral) State, from The Course of Empire series, 1834

The Arcadian State

No. 2.—The Simple or Arcadian State, represents the scene after ages have passed. The gradual advancement of society has wrought a change in its aspect. The ‘untracked and rude’ has been tamed and softened. Shepherds are tending their flocks; the ploughman, with his oxen, is upturning the soil, and Commerce begins to stretch her wings. A village is growing by the shore, and on the summit of a hill a rude temple has been erected, from which the smoke of sacrifice is now ascending. In the fore-ground, on the left, is seated an old man, who, by describing lines in the sand, seems to have made some geometrical discovery. On the right of the picture, is a female with a distaff, about to cross a rude stone bridge. On the stone is a boy, who appears, to be making a drawing of a man with a sword, and ascending the road, a soldier is partly seen. Under the trees, beyond the female figure, may be seen a group of peasants; some are dancing, while one plays on a pipe. In this picture, we have agriculture, commerce, and religion. In the old man who describes the mathematical figure—in the rude attempt of the boy in drawing—in the female figure with the distaff—in the vessel on the stocks, and in the primitive temple on the hill, it is evident that the useful arts, the fine arts, and the sciences, have made considerable progress. The scene is supposed to be viewed a few hours after sunrise, and in the early Summer.

Here is Cole’s pastoral, in all its loveliness. The untamed trees and craggy hills have truly “softened;” the light falls in golden patches upon the ground; communal and individual pursuits commingle, resulting in the slow beginnings of intellectual and technological advance. Caught between a life bound by physical need and another distracted by decadence, the pastoral, in Cole’s mind, carves out a path for real “work-life balance,” as it were, including time both to work with nature and to learn from it.

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow, 1836

“Arcadia,” for many Victorians, was a mythically ideal stage of a society. It was seen as heavenly in its simplicity, abundance, and peace – yet tragically short-lived. The dappled, golden light of the scene echoes Cole’s landscapes of the American West, such as The Oxbow, drawing a rather optimistic parallel between America’s westward expansion and the wholesome world of Arcadia. But, while many of Cole’s contemporaries attempted to manufacture this phase by founding utopian communities or lobbying for social reform, The Course of Empire more cynically suggests that human violence, ambition, greed, and pride render this dream unachievable for any significant length of time. The toils of the Arcadians’ summer labors would in the end reap a world as grand as it was hedonistic, as glorious as it was unjust.

Thomas Cole, The Consummation, from The Course of Empire series, 1836

The Consummation of Empire

In the picture No. 3, we suppose other ages have passed, and the rude village has become a magnificent city. The part seen occupies both sides of the bay, which the observer has now crossed. It has been converted into a capacious harbor, at whose entrance, toward the sea, stand two phari. From the water on each hand, piles of architecture ascend—temples, colonnades and domes. It is a day of rejoicing. A triumphal procession moves over the bridge near the fore-ground. The conqueror, robed in purple, is mounted in a car drawn by an elephant, and surrounded by captives on foot, and a numerous train of guards, senators, etc.—pictures and golden treasures are carried before him. He is about to pass beneath the triumphal arch, while girls strew flowers around. Gay festoons of drapery hang from the clustered columns. Golden trophies glitter above in the sun, and incense rises from silver censers. The harbor is alive with numerous vessels—war galleys, and barks with silken sails. Before the doric temple on the left, the smoke of incense and of the altar rise, and a multitude of white-robed priests stand around on the marble steps. The statue of Minerva, with a victory in her hand, stands above the building of the Caryatides, on a columned pedestal, near which is a band with trumpets, cymbals, etc. On the right, near a bronze fountain and in the shadow of lofty buildings, is an imperial personage viewing the procession, surrounded by her children, attendants, and guard. In this scene is depicted the summit of human glory. The architecture, the ornamental embellishments, etc., show that wealth, power, knowledge, and taste have worked together, and accomplished the highest meed of human achievement and empire. As the triumphal fete would indicate, man has conquered man—nations have been subjugated. This scene is represented as near mid-day, in the early Autumn.


At first glance, “The Consummation of Empire” seems clearly to be Cole’s idea of society’s pinnacle, with its magnificent architecture, diffuse glow, and general rejoicing. But there is a shadow cast over the whole affair. This massive display of wealth and excess, power and domination, has come at the cost of human life, as well as at the cost of every semblance of nature left in the scene.

This is a society that subjugates the less wealthy and powerful for its own benefit – in some ways not unlike the Victorians themselves. For a brief moment, the people of the Consummation forget their origins and lose themselves in their apparent omnipotence. But as glorious as the scene may be, it is in the empire’s Consummation that we see the seeds of destruction begin to take root. It is here in the Early Autumn, Cole seems to warn, that it begins to fall.

So often throughout history, children pay for the sins of their fathers. While Thomas Cole shares the common Victorian view that the Greco-Roman Consummation is the “highest meed of human achievement and empire,” he is also acutely aware that to glorify “wealth, power, knowledge, and taste” is usually also to justify the greed, injustice, manipulation, and pride that come with them. As his empire grows more and more complacent in its grandeur and security, the underpinnings of its virtues are slowly degraded, until they become hollow carapaces of the good things they once offered the people. While exteriorly everything remains the same, the interior begins to rot until, all at once, it collapses.

Perhaps even more adeptly than he showed the rise of the empire, in the second half of the “Course of Empire” series Cole uses rhythms of composition, both harmonious and dissonant, to show the rapid-fire continuity from one stage of empire to the next, from Consummation to Desolation. When the paintings are viewed in a series, the eye does not quite know where to rest. They invite the viewer to search them carefully, pondering where things went wrong.

These paintings would certainly have been a somber warning for the Victorians, who themselves feared the creeping threat of an unknown catastrophe – which we now remember as scarlet fever, two world wars, the atomic bomb, and a century of geopolitics as fragile as they were all-encompassing. And it is just as important that we, who have weathered these storms, remember to prepare for the next.

Thomas Cole, The Vicious State, or The State of Destruction, from The Course of Empire series, 1836


No. 4.— The picture represents the Vicious State, or State of Destruction. Ages may have passed since the scene of glory—though the decline of nations is generally more rapid than their rise. Luxury has weakened and debased. A savage enemy has entered the city. A fierce tempest is raging. Walls and colonnades have been thrown down. Temples and palaces are burning. An arch of the bridge, over which the triumphal procession was passing in the former scene, has been battered down, and the broken pillars, and ruins of war engines, and the temporary bridge that has been thrown over, indicate that this has been the scene of fierce contention. Now there is a mingled multitude battling on the narrow bridge, whose insecurity makes the conflict doubly fearful. Horses and men are precipitated into the foaming waters beneath; war galleys are contending: one vessel is in flames, and another is sinking beneath the prow of a superior foe. In the more distant part of the harbor, the contending vessels are dashed by the furious waves, and some are burning. Along the battlements, among the ruined Caryatides, the contention is fierce; and the combatants fight amid the smoke and flame of prostrate edifices. In the fore-ground are several dead and dying; some bodies have fallen in the basin of a fountain, tinging the waters with their blood. A female is seen sitting in mute despair over the dead body of her son, and a young woman is escaping from the ruffian grasp of a soldier, by leaping over the battlement; another soldier drags a woman by the hair down the steps that form part of the pedestal of a mutilated colossal statue, whose shattered head lies on the pavement below. A barbarous and destroying enemy conquers and sacks the city. Description of this picture is perhaps needless; carnage and destruction are its elements.

The people of the Consummation of Empire were decadent to the point of folly. Not only did they lack empathy in engaging with each other, selfishly pursuing their own pleasure at the expense of others, including subjugating neighboring peoples, but they were also heedless even of their own children and grandchildren. The Destruction of Empire reveals that, no matter how beautiful their richly adorned cities, these people – so distant from love as to sacrifice others for their own comfort – have become calloused, even towards their future selves. As people lost themselves in a daydream of sensuality and false immortality, their greed and lust for power continued to degrade them from within and muster enemies from without. And now their children pay the real price for their illusions.

Where Consummation’s composition features the soft sweep of the horizon, the gentle draping of fabrics, and the light, airy stability of a seemingly eternal city, in Destruction the clouds billow upwards, as if God himself were pulling off the façade to reveal the violence and selfishness that has already been festering in this world for decades, if not centuries. As Thomas Cole puts it, “carnage and destruction are its elements.” The libido dominandi brings about its own ruin.

Thomas Cole, Desolation, from The Course of Empire series, 1836


The fifth picture is the scene of Desolation. The sun has just set, the moon ascends the twilight sky over the ocean, near the place where the sun rose in the first picture. Day-light fades away, and the shades of evening steal over the shattered and ivy-grown ruins of that once proud city. A lonely column stands near the fore ground, on whose capitol, which is illumined by the last rays of the departed sun, a heron has built her nest. The doric temple and the triumphal bridge, may still be recognised among the ruins. But, though man and his works have perished, the steep promontory, with its insulated rock, still rears against the sky unmoved, unchanged. Violence and time have crumbled the works of man, and art is again resolving into elemental nature.

Ruins have long been a favorite theme in painting; the striking juxtaposition of artificial geometric beauty and natural organic degradation evokes a harrowing combination of melancholy and wonder. For Cole, the Desolation of Empire offers an especially poignant opportunity to reflect on what happens to the world in man’s absence: it reverts to its natural state, slowly engrossing and dissolving human works like a scar on the landscape. Yet Desolation neither glorifies nature’s victory nor condemns it. Underneath the silence and stillness, there is a tense but ambivalent warning. Unable to revert to the untamed, fertile world of the Savage State but for a time hostile to any new civilization, the triumphs and failures of this people have become indelible features of the landscape. To quote again Lord Byron:

               This mountain, whose obliterated plan

               The pyramid of empires pinnacled,

               Of Glory’s gewgaws shining in the van

               Till the sun’s rays with added flame were filled!

               Where are its golden roofs? where those who dared to build?

The consequences of empire stretch through nature and through history.