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THOMAS COLE

THE COURSE OF EMPIRE: DESOLATION, 1836

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."

Perhaps the most original and certainly the most poetic of the five canvases, Desolation captures the exquisite stillness of a world without mankind; Cole wrote to his friend Asher B. Durand that he intended for the picture to "express silence and solitude." The sun is setting and nature is again reclaiming the landscape: a lizard crawls up a grand column at left that once supported a palace or temple, and herons nest atop it. A buck and doe are poised to drink near the water by the remains of a temple. Cole may have drawn inspiration for these ruins from those he observed on his trip to Europe in 1829-32. In his concluding statement of this grand series Cole showed "art resolving into elemental nature," and he applied this state even to himself. His signature at lower right appears upside down and incised into a stone that is partially overgrown with vegetation. This placement suggests the artist's own mortality and his eventual reunion with nature in death - the "C" in his name has already disappeared under the growth, signaling to the viewer that all the works of man will eventually be reclaimed by nature.

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