Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 08:30 | SYDNEY
Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 08:30 | SYDNEY

The course of empire


Sam Roggeveen


18 January 2012 15:16

While searching for an image to accompany Andrew Shearer's post on American decline, I was sent on a serendipitous detour into Robert Hughes' American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (1997; also a TV series).

In the book, Hughes describes at length Thomas Cole's landscape series, 'The Course of Empire', completed in 1833-36, a five-part series displaying the phases of empire: first savage, then Arcadian or pastoral, followed by consummation, destruction and finally desolation. Here's Hughes' conclusion:

...the anxiety (Cole) expressed in The Course of Empire, for all its universal aims, is a very American one, and it would raise its head at intervals right down to the Cold War: the fear that this culture, so new, so full of shine and strength, could be swept away in one catastrophic eye-blink. Except that for Cole the threat wasn't nuclear, it was moral, and its seed of apocalypse was planted right in the heart of the American democratic experience.

I don't mention any of this to make a specific political point; merely to note that anxieties about American corruption, empire and decline are a near-constant feature of the political discourse. Below, I've embedded each of the paintings in Cole's series (images courtesy of Wikipedia, where you can see larger versions) with some further extracts from American Visions: 

'The Savage State, 1834, is the primitive scene...It is a culture without monuments or records.' 


'Things have improved in The Arcadian or Pastoral State, c.1836...This, Cole implies, is the idyllic pastoral state of the early Republic, when all human affairs are in tune with nature, and Horace's prisca gens mortalium, the uncorrupted race of mortals, lives without want but also without greed.'

'Consummation, 1836...Populism has led to mob rule, the fickle mob begets dictatorship...And Cole hints at what is coming: on the right, the little children playing by the marble pool have learned about aggression. They are staging a naval battle, and a toy trireme is sinking. As the child is, so will be the man.'

'In Destruction, 1836, these bellicose little beasts have grown up. Enfeebled by luxury and excess, the imperial city has fallen.'

'And now, in Desolation (1836), the cycle of history returns to its beginning: a wilderness, this time with ruins, and only a single column left to mark the vanity of man. Cole set a faint hint of regeneration on its battered capital — a stork's nest, the stork being a symbol of (re)birth.'