Art devotee Paul G. Stein has worked as a volunteer with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art and is a member of the Association of Historians of Nineteenth-Century Art.
There is the moral of all human tales;
'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First Freedom and then Glory—when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption—barbarism at last.
In the summer of 1835, Thomas Cole was in the middle of painting The Course of Empire, his grand five-part cycle of the rise and fall of an imaginary Greco-Roman civilization. He had traveled to Rome in the early 1830s, pondered the ruins, and read the romantic literature. There was more on his mind, however, than Byron and Gibbon.
America was experiencing growing pains in the 1830s. By the middle of the decade, labor, racial, and social tensions were increasingly flaring into full-blown riots in the worst surge of civil violence since the Revolution.
The year had begun inauspiciously when an unemployed house painter misfired his pistols at President Andrew Jackson (who supposedly went after his would-be killer with a cane) in the first-ever assassination attempt on a U.S. president.
In August, riots flared in Washington D.C. and Baltimore, where several people were killed. By the end of the year, according to one account, more riots had erupted than in the past six years combined.
Cole, meanwhile, was painstakingly brushing "the gaud and glitter" of The Consummation of Empire, the largest painting of the series, in which the height of empire is celebrated with triumphal splendor.
In the midst of his imaginary ancient city, however, Cole was troubled by current events. He wrote in his diary on the twenty-first of August: "Riot & public murder are common occurrences…Every newspaper brings accounts of the laws violated not by individuals merely but by organized societies who act in defiance of the lawfully constituted authorities."
He continued, "It is with sorrow that I anticipate the downfall of this republican government; its destruction will be a death blow to Freedom, for if the Free government of the [United] States cannot exist a century where shall we turn?"
Reading about riots was bad enough, but Cole was incensed when the Jacksonian spirit inflicted "the ravages of the axe." Less than a year later, with Cole still at work on Empire, railroad workers began chopping down trees in the valley of the Catskill Creek where he took his walks.
"I despise the miserable creatures who destroy the beautiful works of nature wantonly & for a paltry gain," he wrote in a letter, though remembering that some of those same "dollar-godded utilitarians," as he put it, were patrons of the arts, he was quick to concede: "my maledictions are gentle ones."
Yet there was no hiding his scorn: "If I live to be old enough I may sit down under some bush the last left in the Utilitarian world and feel thankful that Intellect in its march has spared one vestige of the Ancient Forest for me to die by."
While he could not stop empire from advancing outside his door, he did have recourse. Some scholars think the emperor that Cole painted into Consummation is "a barely veiled allusion to Andrew Jackson."
He undertook Destruction, the calamitous fourth work of the series, shortly after finding fresh stumps along the formerly wooded Catskill Creek. It is not hard to imagine Cole taking some satisfaction in the bloody and flailing figures he dashed across the canvas.
And in Desolation, the final painting of his Empire series, a stork nesting on a ruined pillar punctuates Cole’s manifesto: given time, nature will be the ultimate victor.
The Course of Empire was immediately acclaimed, earned Cole thousands of dollars, and was exhibited in New York, Philadelphia and Boston. After that, it was not seen outside of New York City for well over a hundred years.
Today, The Course of Empire is part of a travelling exhibition of Hudson River School masterpieces from the New York Historical Society.
With it, fittingly, is a view Cole painted of his beloved Catskill Creek where, in the 1830s, a nascent and growing empire took away his trees.
The exhibition is on view at the Amon Carter Museum in Forth Worth through June 19, along with Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits from the collection of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. From Texas, the collection travels to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts; the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, South Carolina; and in 2012 to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Cole, Thomas. The Collected Essays and Prose Sketches. Edited by Marshall B. Tymn. St. Paul, Minnesota: The John Colet Press, 1980.
Grimsted, David. "Rioting in Its Jacksonian Setting." The American Historical Review 77.2 (1972): 361-97.
Maddox, Kenneth W. " Thomas Cole and the Railroad: Gentle Maledictions ." Archives of American Art Journal 30.1 (1990): 361-97.
Truettner, William H., and Alan Wallach. Thomas Cole: Landscape into History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.