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THOMAS COLE

THE COURSE OF EMPIRE: THE SAVAGE STATE, CA. 1834

About the Artwork

In 1833 Thomas Cole secured a commission from New York merchant Luman Reed to paint a cycle of five paintings for the art gallery in his home. In the resulting series, The Course of Empire, Cole presented a cyclical view of history in which a civilization appears, matures, and collapses. The artist's distinctly pessimistic vision differed from that of many of his peers; in the early years of the United States' history, its future was considered limitless. Cole drew from a number of literary sources, such as Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Byron's epic Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. The motto he attached to the series was taken from Byron's popular poem: "First freedom, then glory; when that fails, wealth, vice, corruption." The artist finally settled on a title in 1835, taken from Bishop George Berkeley's 1729 poem, "Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America," which begins "Westward the Course of Empire takes its way."

Cole executed the series of paintings in their narrative order beginning with this work, which he had completed by 1834. In a letter to Luman Reed, Cole envisioned that this first canvas, "representing the savage state, must be a view of a wilderness." The untamed terrain recalls the work of the Baroque painter Salvator Rosa (1615-1673) and is the foundation for this interpretation of the dawn of civilization.

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