Thomas Cole’s the Course of Empire
The Connection Between Religion and Nature in Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire Thomas Cole, a founder of The Hudson River School, can be considered one of the most famous American artists. The Hudson River School focused on creating landscapes of the continental United States in a pastoral setting in which humans were one with the their land. The Hudson River School artists accepted that the beauty and diversity of the American landscape was only possible through the divine grace of god.
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And while each of their individual piety varied the Hudson River School painters opinioned paralleled those of the fathers of American transcendentalism: Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman. The Hudson River School was able to create a visual depiction of the transcendental thoughts. “Concurring with Emerson, who had written in his 1841 essay, Thoughts on Art, that painting should become a vehicle through which the universal mind could reach the mind of mankind, the Hudson River painters believed art to be an agent of moral and spiritual transformation.
In The Course of Empire, a five piece series and one of Cole’s most famous works, these views about the relationship between man and nature can be observed if analyzed critically. Furthermore, through the critical evaluation of this series the viewer can ascertain that Cole is making an argument against religion that was not in tune with nature—that being a religion or society that choose to conquer nature rather then respect it as a living representation of God. The Course of Empire was created between 1833 and 1836.
The five large acrylic paintings represent an imaginary empire and its course from creation to destruction and rebirth. It is clearly the same society Cole depicts throughout the entire series because of the identifiable landscape that serves as both the subject and the setting for each stage of the empire. Cole places individuals in direct interaction or lack there of with the land and through these creative choices one can deduce his feelings towards the development of the Empire. In the first painting of the series, The Savage State, it is the audience’s first introduction to the valley of the soon to be empire.
The landscape is a lush one. Its most prominent feature that will be repeated through the rest of the series is the mountain and its cliff in the background of the painting. In the foreground, there is both a vibrant forest and a waterway, which will later become the empire’s defining feature. In addition, there is a hunter in the foreground with a bow and arrow towards a deer on the right side of the painting, which is wounded. This is signifying the hunter portion of society when nature and man are still not in harmony.
In the right background, there is a fire surrounding by other figures and tepees that represent Native Americans. The figures are positioned surrounding the fire; in addition they are purposely blurred. The blurring of the figures is an attempt to show movement around the fire. This is Cole’s first illustration of religion. The fire in the center of the Indians with their society and their bodies surrounding it show their respect for element and for what it can do for them. While the hunter counteracts this respect for the area, the basic canoes in the waterway allude to the beginning of fishing and trade.
Lastly, the stormy clouds exhibit that nature is not yet a calm being. The Arcadian State is the second of the series. Critics have argued that this is the ideal state of society in both Cole’s opinion and the rest of the Hudson River School. This painting is sometimes also referred to as the Pastoral State. The viewer has moved further back in this view of the valley. The mountain is now father to the left and the waterway is father in the background in contrast to the foreground. In The Arcadian State the figures are far more prominent then in The Savage State.
The humans have cleared the lush forest as much of the greenery has been replaced with flat land and fields. In the lower right portion of the painting, there is also a stump signifying a recently cut tree. In the center of the painting is a complex boat in the building stages. There are also many boats including sails in the waterway. On the waterway, a village with visible housing structures has flourished, signifying that the ocean and nature are the way to survival versus the hunter in the Savage State.
Across the painting, sheep flock around the humans in a natural way, there is also a sheepherder in the middle left. In the foreground, an older man is writing in the ground with a stick, a younger boy is lying on the ground and girls are playing or possibly dancing with flower garlands. All of the humans wear visible clothing that is colorful in nature signifying that the society has learned to make fabric and dies or traded on the waterway for them. The most important aspect of The Arcadian State is the round stone structure in the center of the painting.
It is on a hill facing both the water way and the sun. A clear path also leads up the hill from where the humans are going about their daily activities. The stone structure is almost identical to what historians and archeologists say Stone Henge looked like in its original state: squared arches are created out of rectangle stones placed on top of each other which are all of almost identical size, the arches are placed in a circle with finally two larger arches placed in the center facing each other.
The stones also appear smooth and as in the case of Stone Henge this would have to have been done purposely by humans. Stone Henge was used, as a site for worship and this appears to have been Cole’s message in including something of religious meaning that would be simply understood by educated viewers. Out of the center of the stone structure comes a fire possibly signifying a sacrifice as these types of structures were often used as alters. The allusion of a sacrifice signifies a clear belief by the people in some being that controls their lives.
At this point in history much of this life including survival and prosperity depend entirely on the weather. The clouds in this painting are completely calm and the sun shines on the people making it evident that at this point the village is in harmony with nature. There is no hunting in this painting only a clear respect for the natural resources through the creation of stronger boats, herding and the fields, which are being plowed by a human in the center towards the background.
This is the only painting in which the humans appear to be at peace and enjoying themselves. This reasserts the argument that Cole supports religion when it is in harmony with nature. The third and fourth paintings, The Consummation of Empire and The Destruction of Empire are from the same viewpoint. These paintings are clearly most influenced by Cole’s trips to Europe. The empire has Greek, Roman and Ottoman allusions in it therefore reinforcing that this is an imaginary empire not meant to represent any of the well-known empires of the past.
The stone circle has been replaced by a domed building. Both paintings are filled with people yet the hierarchy is evident as is the decadency of the empire. In the bottom left of the The Consummation there is a general or ruler in a red robe raising a structure that appears to be a cross that could be a reference to Constantine and or the crusades. In the bottom right of this picture, there is a woman on a throne with others bowing down to here, there is also a brigade of soldiers with weapons and a fountain depicting control over the elements.
The empire has many personified gods across it signifying that worship is now towards people. Gold, potted and decorative plants as well as large ships filled with soldiers also signify that nature is being used for negatives. In The Destruction of Empire the empire in every way falls apart: buildings are burning down, the clouds are back to storming, the ships are breaking in half and a woman is even committing suicide running from a solider which may allude to rape and the unspoken causalities of war.
All of these items suggest that Cole feels the decadence and the domination of nature and the position of individuals over the nature lead to destruction. Finally in the fifth painting, Desolation, the empire is literally in ruins. No humans are seen anywhere in the painting. The single standing column is now a home for birds depicting that once again nature is dominating over society. The water is flowing through the ruins also referring to the power of nature. In this painting there is no reference to a religion other then that of the nature itself.
The most defining feature of Desolation is the full moon over the water in the center, implying that this day is ending a new one will begin which can be viewed as a rebirth is approaching. Cole paints The Course of Empire during a highly political time between the Federalists and the Democrats, some would argue that The Course of Empire is a political warning of the excesses of democracy but the religious symbolism proves that while it may be a political warning the real warning is one that is much stronger than that: nature and God defeat all that is not done in harmony with them.
Cole’s paintings along with the rest of The Hudson River School’s work give birth to the preservation movement in America creating national parks such as Yosemite and allowing for today’s children to see glimpses of the beauty that was all around Cole and his peers.