In the 1800s, painter Thomas Cole gave a chilling warning about environmental destruction and political excess.
Painter Thomas Cole founded the first truly American art movement, the Hudson River School. Starting in the Hudson River valley in New York’s Catskill Mountains, the school specialized in romantic paintings of the North (and eventually South) American wilderness.
In the 1830s, Cole created a series of five paintings that made him the most famous artist in America. Known as The Course of Empire, the artworks give a chilling warning about environmental destruction and political excess. They are as relevant to America today as they were to the America of 1836.
Born in England in 1801, Cole came to America after seeing industrialization darken the natural beauty of the English countryside. He fell in love with the American wilderness but eventually saw people and commerce encroaching on nature in his adopted land as well. At the same time, in Cole’s trips to Italy he wondered at the Roman Empire and why it rose and fell. These two influences came together in Cole’s mind when he created The Course of Empire.
The five-painting series starts with nature in all its pristine glory, shows the rise and fall of human empire, and concludes with nature reclaiming the land.
The first painting in the series, titled The Course of Empire, shows the original wild beauty of America.
The second in the series, The Arcadian, depicts people living in harmony with nature.
The third painting, The Consummation of the Empire, shows the empire rising to glory, with nature barely visible as people and buildings cover the land.
Then, the fourth, Destruction, depicts the fall of empire as people fight with each other and nature destroys the buildings and monuments with waves and storms.
The final painting in the series, Desolation, finds nature reclaiming the ruins.
It was a potent message in 1836. Now, with global warming leading to rising seas and increasingly destructive storms; with the extinction of thousands of species; and with political dysfunction fraying at the fabric of American values; The Course of Empire is a chilling warning about what might be.
Or, about what might be avoided. Cole’s paintings gave people thought and America continued to industrialize, expand, and become a world power. The artwork did not stop those developments. By making people think, however, Cole’s work supported environmental movements and are among the influences that led America to create one of the best natural park systems in the world. My hope is that remembering these paintings will encourage all of us to do what we can to heal the political and ecological wounds hurting today’s America and the world.
Cole created a new school of painting; no small achievement. Roughly two dozen artists have ties to the Hudson River School. If interested, one can visit the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. It has trails with guided tours that take you to the locations where many of the paintings were created.
Ted Macaluso is the author of Vincent, Theo and the Fox: A Mischievous Adventure through the Paintings of Vincent van Gogh for ages 4 – 10. He lives in Reston, Virginia.
Text © 2019 by Ted Macaluso.