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."
In this second painting in the series Cole imagined a society in a state of ideal balance between man and nature. In an earlier conception of the series the artist described this stage as the epitome of human development, calling it simply "Civilization." Appropriately, he turned to the famed seventeenth-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain's pastoral idylls for inspiration in this harmoniously ordered scene. Cole wrote his patron Luman Reed of his intentions for the picture: "[It] must be the pastoral state -- the day further advanced . . . the scene partly cultivated-a rude village near the bay. . . groups of peasants either pursuing their labours in the field . . . or engaged in some simple amusement." In this morning scene the arts of civilization are flowering: animals are being domesticated at center, dancers pirouette to the music of a flute at right, and smoke emits from a Stonehenge-like temple in a rudimentary form of worship.
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