Thomas Cole

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The Angel and the Voyager

What Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life and Course of Empire Paintings Tell Us About the Meaning of Life
The Four Seasons of Cole's Voyager

Why Are We Here and Where Are We Going?

Art—in all its vibrant, varied forms—wields a singular power to simultaneously reflect and reveal: reflecting what we know to be true from our own life journeys and revealing destinations of paths bypassed or yet untaken. The insight and creativity of an artist through this universal medium invites access to and assessment of that which appeals to and affects each individual mind and heart. Art can powerfully portray the universality of our time on earth: the natural life cycle of birth, growth, decay, and death. This process, once begun, marches forward at its own pace, indifferent to the qualms and delights of man. We are all in this process together, and we know it. Yet the passage of time, like the movement of clouds, is just slow enough that it is, at least most of the time, almost imperceptible.

Without fail, the older we get, the more compressed our earthbound sojourn tends to feel, forcing us to confront the brevity of our time on this planet. (This compression of time can occur sooner in our lives if we face an early loss of a loved one, major health problems, or other crises.) Whenever life’s fleetingness hits us, aspirations (wealth, success, approval) that once held so much appeal begin to lose their luster, and the chipping veneer alights in us a yearning for a more permanent, incorruptible source of hope.

Creators of art are often keenly aware of this fleetingness. “You just have to let go,” Martin Scorsese said when reflecting on death in an interview with The New York Times. “The point is to get rid of everything now. You’ve got to figure out who gets what or not. Often death is sudden. If you’re given the grace to continue working, you better figure out something that needs telling.”
This seemingly brutal realism is echoed in the Psalms of the Bible:
So teach us to number our days,
That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 90:12
Both Scorsese and the psalmist speak to the dilemma of mortality—the tension between knowing that our days are numbered and the uncertainty that follows as we determine how to spend our remaining time. In this book, we will use two series of paintings, The Voyage of Life and The Course of Empire by the influential nineteenth-century landscape painter Thomas Cole, as the primary lenses for evaluating different approaches to the dilemma of mortality. Also interwoven are surveys of cultural and artistic artifacts drawn from across disciplines and mediums. We endeavor not only to examine the inescapable finiteness of our time on earth, but to gain a richer perspective on the questions that naturally follow—questions fundamental to the human condition—namely: Why are we here? and Where are we going?

Thomas Cole: The Moralist and Autodidact

Thomas Cole was a British-American painter born in Bolton le Moors, Lancashire, England, in 1801, and raised in Steubenville, Ohio. Largely self-tutored, Cole represents the archetypal American figure of the autodidact. In his twenties, he moved to Philadelphia and then to Catskill, New York. The latter remained his home with the exception of a few years spent abroad until his death at age forty-seven. Although he is best known for his landscape art, he began his career in the early 1820s as a portrait painter.

Cole is widely regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School art movement, an informal group comprising landscape painters influenced by European Romanticism and American expansionism in their idyllic depictions of the American landscape. Cole’s significant impact is seen in the work of fellow painters Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Asher Brown Durand. Their artwork “aimed to depict nature in a peaceful, realistic, and also idealized way. Ruggedness existed alongside portrayals of ‘sublimity’ (that quality of unquantifiable greatness inspiring feelings of wonder, awe, and even terror). Such absorption in nature was in many ways a response to the increasing industrialization of the time.”

 

In his art, there is an immediate interplay between the pristine beauty of the breathtaking landscapes and the foreboding destruction brought on by civilization. Marked by a distinctive melancholy and religious undertones, Cole’s paintings are imbued with moralistic motifs that expose his own complex, evolving feelings about what he saw as the cyclical nature of life. industrialization of the time.”

Thomas Cole, from the Matthew Brady Studio (c. 1845). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Edith Cole Silberstein.

As an artist, Cole saw his creative capacity as a directive to effect positive change. He wrote:

I have been dwelling on many subjects, and looking forward to the time when I can embody them on the canvas. They are subjects of a moral and religious nature. On such I think it the duty of the artist to employ his abilities: for his mission, if I may so term it, is a great and serious one. His work ought not to be a dead imitation of things without the power to impress a sentiment, or enforce a truth.

A deep reverence for nature—and, by extension, for its Creator—is immediately evident in Cole’s earliest paintings. In these first pieces, we see the rich depiction of nature that characterizes romanticism. A close look reveals strategic shading elements that explore underlying motifs of light and darkness—a technique that the artist heavily employs to explore religious themes in later paintings. Cole’s painting process began with field observation, during which he would make initial sketches and record detailed notes. The scene was then infused with Cole’s own “mind’s eye vision.” His detailed field notes on color, atmosphere, and geology, coupled with his imaginative interpretation, resulted in remarkable, idealized reproductions of nature scenes. In Landscape, Cole depicts pioneer efforts to tame the American wilderness. By contrast, Landscape with Indian offers what appears to be a more harmonious encounter between man and nature.

In another painting featuring Native Americans, Landscape with Figures: A Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans”, Cole captures the climax of James Fenimore Cooper’s acclaimed novel. Yet in depicting this epic literary scene, the imposing nature of Cole’s landscape causes its viewer to focus on the dominating, inevitable forces that eclipse the unfolding human drama.

In Expulsion. Moon and Firelight, Cole introduces allegory to his art. Eden (on the right side of the painting, representing the east) is joined to the fallen world by a bridge. To recreate this pivotal biblical scene in which Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), Cole layered imaginative elements onto an image of a natural bridge that he observed in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in 1827. His subsequent paintings featuring the Garden of Eden draw a parallel between Eden and the pure, untainted American landscape.

Cole’s allegorical thread continues in The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge, which likens the American Revolution to the great flood of Genesis 7, both having birthed a new beginning after ridding the land of corruption. The Smithsonian American Art Museum identifies the symbolic elements in this painting:

A lone skull resting against the rocks suggests that the world has been washed clean of human folly. At the center of the painting, bathed in light, a dove flies toward land as the ark floats on the calm waters, ready to usher in a new and more enlightened era in America.

In The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds, Cole demonstrates his mastery of light and shadow. The Chrysler Museum of Art describes the artist’s striking portrayal of this key biblical scene (Luke 2:8–20):

The dramatic New Testament story unfolds in a sweeping nocturnal landscape struck by bursts of heavenly light. Appearing in golden light, an angel announces Christ’s birth to startled shepherds in the fields below; the light surrounding the angel serves as a symbol of spiritual awakening. The shepherds, for example, represent three successively higher states of spiritual response to the angel’s message, beginning with the stunned fear of the praying youth and culminating in the quiet understanding of the standing elder. Some scholars have noted that the middle shepherd bears a resemblance to Cole and may be an idealized self-portrait.

In 1833, Cole embarked on an epic five-part series chronicling the rise and fall of an imagined civilization. He was inspired by a trip to Europe, during which he saw for the first time the ruins of ancient civilization (something that could not be found in America at the time). Cole drew further inspiration from Bishop George Berkeley’s poem “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America,” which references the stages of civilization and the belief that America would be the next great empire. This prophecy rang true for Cole, moving him to create this anticipatory work.

In proposing this series to his patron, Luman Reed, Cole wrote:

A series of pictures might be painted that should illustrate the History of a natural scene, as well as be an Epitome of Man—showing the natural changes of Landscape & those effected by man in his progress from Barbarism to Civilization, to Luxury, the Vicious state or state of destruction and to the state of Ruin & Desolation.

The series opens to a view of raw, unaffected nature (The Savage State), from which peaceful farmland emerges (The Arcadian or Pastoral State). This scene is then supplanted by a flourishing, gilded civilization (Consummation), which succumbs to self-destruction by grisly warfare (Destruction). The series concludes with a panorama of ruins and nature’s gradual but certain reclamation (Desolation).

This series clearly reflects the artist’s anxiety about the dangers of urban expansion in America. Even as the scene dramatically transforms between paintings, a boulder balanced on a cliff in the distance remains unchanged, its constancy serving as a reminder of nature’s permanence, even while its precarious position points to the transience of man.

A contemporary of Cole, author James Fenimore Cooper praised The Course of Empire in 1849, stating, “Not only do I consider the Course of Empire the work of the highest genius this country has ever produced, but I esteem it one of the noblest works of art that has ever been wrought.”

While working on the iconic Course of Empire series, Cole produced a piece commonly known as The Oxbow. Created in response to British author Basil Hall’s criticism of a primitive, uncultured America, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm celebrates American landscape in all its glory. This painting presents a harmonious coexistence between unsettled and cultivated lands and a positive outlook for America’s future. Note that Cole himself appears as the painter perched upon the rocks. Cole has left another possible allusion to the Flood, having etched into the distant hills what appears to be the shape of Hebrew letters spelling out “Noah” and “Shaddai,” the latter being a reference to God “Almighty.”

Hudson River School artists were fueled by the poetry of transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. Their writings, like the artists’ work, contrasted the insignificance of humanity with the infinity of nature. View on the Catskill—Early Autumn is one of many paintings in which Cole highlights the timeless flex of nature and cycles and seasons. However, later in his career, Cole’s paintings increasingly evinced a more robust theistic spirituality, a clear departure from the deistic, pantheistic, or individualistic approaches that characterized the transcendentalism of his time.

Several years after completing The Course of Empire paintings, Cole created another series centered on the themes of birth, growth, decay, and death. By this point in his career, Cole, now a well-known artist, was determined to use landscape painting to convey universal truths about the human condition; toward this end, he intentionally simplified the artistic style in this series (as compared to The Course of Empire) to focus attention on the underlying moral and religious messages.

The Voyage of Life—our second focal series—follows the trajectory of one man’s journey on the river of life. Each of the four allegorical paintings depicts a season in the voyager’s life. In Childhood, he enters a fertile world as a babe, full of innocent wonder. In Youth, he charges ahead with confidence and ambition. In Manhood, he cries out for deliverance amidst the turbulent waters of middle age. And in Old Age, he sails peacefully toward his eternal home at the end of his days. Beyond addressing the state of adolescent America by highlighting the unforeseen, potentially destructive costs of Manifest Destiny (the nineteenth-century belief that the United States was destined to expand its reach across the continent), The Voyage of Life draws parallels to the Christian narrative of salvation and resurrection.

In each painting and stage of life, the voyager is guided by an angelic being whose presence he does not acknowledge until the final scene. This guardian angel faithfully accompanies the voyager through verdant hillsides and cragged cliffs, ultimately leading him to a vision of eternal life.

Cole painted two sets of The Voyage of Life, the first in 1839–1840 and the second in 1842, with only minor differences between the two. When the original series’ patron died in 1839, the attorney representing the patron’s family became increasingly adversarial in his dealings with Cole, ultimately stipulating that the first set of paintings would, upon leaving Cole’s possession, remain in a private collection, never to be seen by the public. This led Cole to paint a replica set while abroad in Rome. When he returned to America, he did not show the first series publicly, but only exhibited the second set. When he died, the first set was included in the March 1848 memorial exhibition held at the American Art Union. In June of that year, the Art Union voted to purchase the second set and distribute it by lottery. In this book we will focus on the second set of paintings.

After his two masterpiece series, Cole painted for six more years (until his death in early 1848), continuing to explore the theme of man’s relationship to and life within the context of nature, including paintings that seem to reveal a more peaceful, harmonious encounter.

A Pic-Nic Party, painted four years after the second Voyage of Life series, ostensibly presents a friendlier exchange between mankind and his surroundings. However, the tree stump in the foreground remains as a reminder of the cost of exchange between man and nature.

Home in the Woods also showcases Cole’s remarkable skill in simultaneously celebrating the fertile abundance of the untamed American landscape and exposing his concerns about the exploitation of natural resources. In his 1836 “Essay on American Scenery,” Cole lamented, “Yet I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such [American] landscapes are quickly passing away—the ravages of the axe are daily increasing—the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation.”

When he died unexpectedly in February 1848, Cole left behind studies of an incomplete five-part series titled The Cross and the World. In this series, Cole limited the use of color to visually contrast the light of God against the darkness of sin. The first painting (study for Two Youths Enter Upon a Pilgrimage) shows two young men embarking on divergent paths, one led by the promise of spiritual glory and the other lured by the seduction of earthly glory. A man stands between the two paths, gesturing toward the best option. He is an evangelist, ready to offer spiritual guidance to the youths, should they choose to listen.

The second and third paintings offer glimpses into each man’s journey midway. The path to spiritual glory is depicted as rugged and difficult for the pilgrim of the cross, while the path to earthly glory is well paved and easy for the pilgrim of the world. The final two paintings reveal the destinations of each traveler: The pilgrim of the cross has found spiritual peace (depicted in painting no. 4, The Pilgrim of the Cross at the End of His Journey) while the pilgrim of the world has found his worldly pleasures wasted away by the passage of time (painting no. 5, The Pilgrim of the World at the End of His Journey). Ultimately, the pilgrim of the cross discovered something profound, whereas the pilgrim of the world found squalor and emptiness.

Despite being unfinished, this set of paintings reveals much about Cole’s mindset in his last days. Through the series, he conveys truths about the paths we choose and what awaits us at the end of life. The pursuit of materialism and earthbound achievements ends in degradation, while the pursuit of spiritual riches and eternal glory ends with salvation and eternal life.

As this brief survey of his career shows, Cole’s romanticized compositions communicate the overwhelming beauty of the natural world while evoking questions about the divine. He subscribed to the idea, common to his time period, that art is a process of creation, not just a process of reproduction. In a sense, he and his contemporaries were imitating the creative power of the Almighty. Yet, Cole’s paintings also reveal a spirit of humility, signaling his understanding of mankind’s place in the grand scope of nature and eternity.

Memento Mori and the Cycles of Life

Equipped with a richer understanding of our focal paintings within the context of Cole’s whole career, we now turn to a brief study of some significant ways in which art illuminates and wrestles with the dilemma of mortality. Cole joins a long line of artists whose work addresses the cycles of life from birth through death. From the beginning of time, death has been considered the great unifier. Yet, for Christians, death is not the end.

Visual Memento Mori

Dance of Death, a fifteenth-century fresco, depicts men of different social rankings, lofty and laborers alike, being led to the grave, hand in hand. This work is emblematic of memento mori—reminders that we are all going to die natural deaths. Monk and Death is a French ivory pendant from the sixteenth or seventeenth century, revealing the underlying skull on one side of a near-dead monk’s face.

The straightforward display of Philippe de Champaigne’s Vanitas (1671) depicts life, death, and time. These works along with Thomas Smith’s Self-Portrait (1680) may strike us as morbid, but they were not unusual for their time. Smith, like his contemporaries, uses a skull to put into perspective other symbols representing key moments in his life journey.

The exterior panels of Rogier van der Weyden’s Braque Triptych (c. 1452), which show the skull of the patron, serve a similar function as the skull in Smith’s Self-Portrait. Triptychs were typically displayed opened, but the imagery of a skull resting on a broken brick (a possible representation of the patron’s profession) when the frame is closed serves as a visual reminder of what awaits each of us at the end of our lives in this world.

For another example of a work replete with memento mori, consider Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting The Ambassadors (1533). This extraordinary painting illustrates two young men who have achieved worldly success and are at the height of their prowess. Numerous symbols are present, but chief among them is the distorted skull in the foreground. An anamorphic painting, this piece reveals different imagery when viewed from different angles. The painting was probably intended to hang on the wall of a staircase so that, as one descended and looked down at the painting from the upper right, the skull would be clearly visible. The skull, coupled with the small crucifix in the top left corner, serves as a reminder of the viewer’s mortality and the need to turn to faith as the path to resurrection.

 

Another image of the universal awareness of human mortality is the Celtic cross, a religious symbol dating back to the early Middle Ages that offers a visual representation of the connectedness between earthly time and heavenly time. This symbol was often manifested in intricately decorated, freestanding stone structures called high crosses. One example, Muiredach’s High Cross, is pictured below.

Commissioned by King Muiredach (not much is known about him) and completed by an anonymous artist in the ninth or tenth century, Muiredach’s High Cross can be found at the monastic site of Monasterboice in County Louth, Ireland. Its design, like that of all Celtic crosses, emerged from the sun crosses of pre-Christian paganism.

History professor Dr. Glenn Sunshine describes how the design of the sun cross represented not only the sun but all of space and time:

The cross pointed to four cardinal directions, with east on the left, south on top, west on the right, and north on the bottom. The vertical line represented the “world tree” (Yggdrasil in Norse mythology), which tied the worlds together. The bottom was anchored in the underworld, the realm of the dead, and the top reached to heaven, the realm of the gods. The horizontal line represented this world, or “middle earth” between the lower and upper worlds. All that exists was thus symbolically represented in the diagram.
When the sun cross was combined with the cross of Jesus Christ to form the Celtic cross, the circular design took on new symbolism, now representing God’s sovereignty over all of creation. Thus, the Celtic cross embodies both general revelation (knowledge of God through nature) and special revelation (knowledge of God through Scripture). At the same time, the Celtic cross continues to represent the cyclical nature of life, on a daily level (in which days replace days), on an annual level (in which years replace years), and in a life cycle (in which one generation follows another).
We see this circularity reflected on multiple levels in our everyday lives. Each year, spring is the season of birth (and, not coincidentally, when we celebrate Christ’s resurrection); summer is the season of growth; fall is a season of decay; and winter is the season of death. As The Voyage of Life and The Course of Empire depict, a person’s life and a civilization’s rise and fall also follow the same trajectory of birth, growth, decay, and death. Cole’s work intimates that this circular motion also has a linearity—a telos (an end), a consummation. Life may be full of cycles, but the cycles are moving forward in an ultimate direction.

Memento Mori in Music

We have focused on visual art in our study of memento mori thus far, but other forms of creative expression have served similarly as conduits to explore the human condition of being embedded in this transient world. For example, music is a medium through which people have long wrestled with the dilemma of mortality. The following compositions, like the artwork we surveyed, call us to understand the essentials of life. We invite you to listen to and reflect on each of them.

  • Gregorio Allegri, “Miserere mei, Deus” (1630s)
  • Johann Sebastian Bach, “Come, Sweet Death” (1736)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “Introitus,” from his Requiem (1791)
  • Johannes Brahms, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen,” from his Requiem (1865–1868)
  • Giuseppe Verdi, “Dies Irae,” from his Requiem (1874)
  • Gabriel Fauré, “In Paradisum,” from his Requiem (1887–1890)
  • Henryk Górecki, “Lento—Contabile Semplice,” from Symphony No. 3 (1976)
  • Max Richter, “Dona Nobis Pacem 1,” from The Leftovers (2014)
  • Karl Jenkins, “Lament for the Valley,” from Cantata Memoria—For the Children (2016)

One musical selection has a particularly powerful backstory. “Lament for the Valley” is a poignant piece in the album Cantata Memoria, composed by Karl Jenkins on the fiftieth anniversary of the Aberfan disaster. This devastating event killed 116 children and 29 adults when a colliery spoil tip collapsed upon the village below in South Wales. “Lament for the Valley” was written in two parts; the first describes the tragedy itself, and the second offers hope amidst lament. As such, Jenkins takes the listener on a journey from dark to light.

Memento Mori in Poetry

Three Approaches to the Dilemma of Mortality

Given the inevitability of death, how are we to spend our remaining days? Across history, people have taken one of three primary approaches to answering this question: resigning to futility; achieving “immortality” through art and achievement; or exchanging futility for hope in eternity. We can use poetry as a lens through which to better understand these approaches.

Cycles of Life

As artists through the ages have attempted to express, our lives are inextricably entwined in a natural cycle characterized by birth, growth, decay, and death. Indeed, this recurring sequence of events is all around us, manifested in different ways and arenas. These cycles of life can be applied on a smaller scale, such as a day or a year; they can also be applied on a larger scale, such as the life of a nation or civilization. If we consider each day a miniature life, we see the four elements of the life cycle in the progression of a twenty-four-hour period. We are “born” daily when we wake up (dawn), and then we “grow” (noon). Some of us require more time than others to reach the point of our maximal energy. As the day progresses, our bodies “decay”— we begin losing energy (sunset). We may get a second wind in the afternoon, but, inevitably, time catches up to us. At night comes our “death” (midnight or thereabouts): We enter our “burial chambers” (bedrooms), put on “grave clothes” (pajamas), and pull our “shrouds” (sheets) up to our heads. Then we enter a death-like state called sleep. Indeed, the Bible uses sleep as a euphemism for death when describing the resurrection of believers:

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life.

Daniel 12:2a

Understanding our daily life cycle in this manner gives us perspective on the Bible’s principle of living each day without anxiety about the next day, free of the burden of a week’s—or year’s—worth of concerns.

So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:34

Followers of God are to live as though there are only two days in the calendar: today and that day—the day of Christ’s return. The goal is to always connect today with that day, thus living each day in anticipation of eternity.

Cole’s Faith, in Art

Though Cole’s art features obvious biblical themes, our knowledge of Cole’s personal faith is largely limited to the fact that he received baptism, confirmation, and communion in the Episcopal Church around 1842. However, we can infer from the allegorical elements embedded in his paintings a belief in the promise of an eternal home in heaven—and a belief in the God who makes this possible. As we study The Voyage of Life and The Course of Empire more closely, we will gain a richer understanding of the third approach to the dilemma of mortality.

Focal Paintings: The Voyage of Life and The Course of Empire

Painted over a ten-year span, the Voyage of Life and Course of Empire series share similar themes. Broadly speaking, both series record the passage of time and its effect on mankind and his natural surroundings. More specifically, we can observe parallels between the individual paintings by considering the works as corresponding pairings.

The first painting in The Voyage of Life series, Childhood, corresponds to the first two paintings of The Course of Empire series, The Savage State and The Arcadian or Pastoral State, in that all three depict nascency in a land that is largely untamed and untainted. Next, The Voyage of Life: Youth and The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire capture the lure of worldly success and ambition. The Voyage of Life: Manhood and The Course of Empire: Destruction show the collapse of earthly structures (literal and figurative) and the subsequent need for something more. Finally, The Voyage of Life: Old Age and The Course of Empire: Desolation close out their respective series with scenes of unexpected peace in the aftermath of destruction.

Childhood, The Savage State, and The Arcadian or Pastoral State

The Voyage of Life: Childhood

This magisterial series opens to a scene that contrasts the dark, mysterious unknown from whence we came with the rosy, blooming sunrise of new life. Although Cole was the first to take on the monumental task of creating coherent visual images on the allegorical subject of journeying through the river of life, notable literary pieces have done so as well, including John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

To guide the viewer, Cole provided a written explanation for each painting in this series. About Childhood, he wrote:

A stream is seen issuing from a deep cavern, in the side of a craggy and precipitous mountain, whose summit is hidden in clouds. From out the cave glides a boat, whose golden prow and sides are sculptured into figures of the Hours: steered by an Angelic Form, and laden with buds and flowers…

The dark cavern is emblematic of our earthly origin, and the mysterious Past. The Boat, composed of Figures of the Hours, images the thought that we are borne on the hours down the Stream of Life. The Boat identifies the subject in each picture. The rosy light of the morning, the luxuriant flowers and plants, are emblems of the joyousness of early life. The close banks and the limited scope of the scene indicate the narrow experience of Childhood, and the nature of its pleasures and desires. The Egyptian Lotus in the foreground of the picture is symbolical of Human Life. Joyousness and wonder are the characteristic emotions of childhood.

Thomas Cole, 1840

Cole calls our attention to key symbolic elements in this painting. First, the fullness of the mountain’s summit is unseen, just as our entrance into this world is shrouded in mystery. Second, there is an hourglass at the front of the boat, representing the passage of time. Third, the child is oblivious to the presence of the angel who is guiding him at the tiller. Indeed, it isn’t until the final painting in the set, Old Age, that the voyager recognizes the guiding force in his life. Finally, this scene is abounding with natural beauty, evidenced in the blooms cascading from atop both boat and riverbank. A full and fertile world welcomes the child from a cave of chaos.

The Course of Empire: The Savage State

The Course of Empire begins with The Savage State, a vision of raw, untouched wilderness. Centered in the background is the mountain with the boulder balanced atop, visible in all five paintings. Looking closely, we observe a hunter on the bottom left; he has just shot an arrow at his prey, a deer leaping in the foreground. In the middle on the right, we see an encampment in a scene essentially borrowed from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, of which Cole was a great admirer. On the water’s edge is a canoe, representing transportation and exploration. Dark storm clouds frame the painting, symbolizing the wildness of nature. Despite the signs of nascent civilization, nature dominates this stage.

The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State

 

The next painting in the series is The Arcadian or Pastoral State. Here, we see that some of the natural growth has been tamed and cultivated into farmland. Farmers and shepherds have replaced the hunter-gatherers—a move that signals permanent settlement. We see smoke rising from houses and more sophisticated boats in the water. There is an old man drawing figures in the dirt, symbolizing the beginning of mathematical discovery. A little boy is hunched over, drawing a stick figure of a man with a sword—the origins of art (Cole’s initials can be faintly seen below the boy on the stone bridge.)

The mountain is still visible in the background, although it seems more remote now. A building has been erected in the center of the painting, representing the beginning of monumental architecture and religion. At the bottom right, a tree stump serves as a harbinger of the violent dominance over nature by the artifice of man. Yet, for now, there remains a tenuous balance between the conqueror and the conquered, the latter of which seems harnessed but not quite overtaken (observe the shepherd boy tending to his sheep).

The Angel and the Voyager

What Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life and Course of Empire Paintings Tell Us About the Meaning of Life

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