Collection Highlights

The Course of Empire: Desolation

Is owned by NYHS: 
Yes
The Course of Empire: Desolation
The Course of Empire: Desolation
The Course of Empire: Desolation
Title
The Course of Empire: Desolation
Date 
1836
Medium 
Oil on canvas (relined)
Dimensions 
Overall: 39 1/4 x 63 1/4 in. ( 99.7 x 160.7 cm )Frame: 53 x 76 1/2 x 5 3/4 in. ( 134.6 x 194.3 x 14.6 cm )
Credit Line 
Gift of The New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts
Object Number 
1858.5
Gallery Label 
In the late 1820s the young Thomas Cole quickly built a successful career as a painter of Hudson River landscapes, but he harbored ambitions of turning the landscape form to a larger purpose. As early as 1827 he conceived a cycle of paintings that would illustrate the rise and fall of a civilization, and a few years later he began sketching and developing his ideas. The artist attempted unsuccessfully to persuade Robert Gilmor, a Baltimore patron, to commission the series, and in 1833 he 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." Cole also drew upon paintings he had seen on his recent trip to Europe (1829-32), including the work of J.M.W. Turner and Claude Lorrain. The five paintings follow a dramatic narrative arc, anchored by the imperturbable mountain in the background, and expounded with rich and complex symbolic systems that illustrate this imaginary world's history, including the course of the sun across the sky, the changing relation of man to nature, the role of animals, the arts, and the military, and even the placement and character of his own signature. Luman Reed, Cole's generous patron, did not live to see the completion of the series. He died in June of 1836, but Reed's family encouraged Cole to complete the work. The series was exhibited to great acclaim in New York later that year. The Course of Empire, along with the rest of Reed's collection, became the core of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts. That group of works was donated to the New-York Historical Society in 1858, forming the foundation of its acclaimed collection of American landscape painting. For this last episode Cole described how "violence and time have crumbled the works of man, and art is again resolving into elemental nature. The gorgeous pageant has passed, the roar of battle has ceased - the multitude has sunk into the dust - empire is extinct." 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.
Provenance 
Luman Reed, d. 1836; Mrs. Luman Reed, New York, 1836-44; New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1844-58.
Bibliography 
Morris, G. P., ed., "The Fine Arts," The New-York Mirror, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, Vol. XII, No. 23, December 6, 1834, p. 179. Isham, Samuel, The History of American Painting, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1936, pp. 225-6. Morris, G. P., ed., "The Fine Arts," The New-York Mirror, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, Vol. XIII, April 2, 1836, p. 318. Morris, G. P., ed., "The Fine Arts," The New-York Mirror, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, Vol. XIV, No. 17, October 22, 1836, p. 135. Morris, G. P., ed., "The Fine Arts," The New-York Mirror, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, Vol. XIV, No. 18, October 29, 1836, p. 142. Clark, Lewis Gaylord, ed. The Knickerbocker, Vol. VIII, No. 5, November, 1836, pp. 81, 630. Morris, G. P., ed., "The Fine Arts," The New-York Mirror, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, Vol. XIV, No. 19, November 4, 1836, p. 150. "Amusements," New York Commercial Advertiser, Vol. XXXIX, Friday, November 4, 1836, n.p. Morris, G. P., ed., "The Fine Arts," The New-York Mirror, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, Vol. XIV, No. 20, November 12, 1836, p. 158. Morris, G. P., ed., "The Fine Arts," The New-York Mirror, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, Vol. XIV, No. 27, December 31, 1836, p. 215. Poe, Edgar Allen, ed., "The New York Gallery of the Fine Arts," The Broadway Journal, I, February 15,1845, pp. 102-103. Bryant, William Cullen, Funeral Oration, occasioned by the Death of Thomas Cole, Delivered Before the National Academy of Design, New-York, May 4, 1848, New York, D. Appleton & Company, pp. 23-4, 26. Exhibition of the Paintings of the late Thomas Cole, at the Gallery of the American Art-Union, 1848, pp. 19-20. Noble, Louis Legrand, The Course of Empire, Voyage of life, and Other Pictures of Thomas Cole, N. A., With Selections from his Letters and Miscellaneous Writings: Illustrative of his Life, Character, and Genius, New York: Cornish, Lamport & Company, 1853, n.p. Stillman, W. J. & Durand, J. Eds., "The Artists of America," The Crayon, Vol. VII, No. 2, February 1860, pp. 45-6. Hone, Philip, The Diary of Philip Hone 1828-1851, New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1889, p. 236. Durand, John, The Life and Times of Asher B. Durand, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1894; Reprint, Hensonville, NY: Black Dome Press, 2007), p. 124. Caffin, Charles H., The Story of American Painting: The Evolution of Painting in America from Colonial Times to the Present, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1907, pp. 66, 69-70. Mather, Frank Jewett, Morey, Charles Rufus, and Henderson, William James, The Pageant of America: The American Spirit in Art, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1927, p. 43. Sweet, Frederick A. "Asher B. Durand, Pioneer, American Landscape Painter," The Art Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring, 1945, pp. 141, 153. Howe, Winifred E., A History of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a Chapter on the Early Institutions of Art in New York. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1946, pp. 62-7 Thomas Cole: One Hundred Years Later, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT 1948, pp. 10-1. Tunnard, Christopher, "Reflections on the Course of Empire and other Architectural Fantasies of Thomas Cole, N.A.," The Architectural Review, Vol. 104, December 1948, pp. 291-294. Davidson, Marshall, "Whither the Course of Empire?" American Heritage, October 1957, pp. 52-5, 58-61, 104. Flexner, James Thomas, That Wilder Image: The Painting of America's Native School from Thomas Cole to Winslow Homer, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962, pp. 49-58, 108, 354. McCoubrey, John, American Tradition in Painting, New York: G. Braziller, 1963, p. 65. Exhibition at Kennedy Galleries, New York, 1964, pp. 14, 26-7. Noble, Louis Legrand, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole, Hensonville, New York: Black Dome Press, 1964, pp. 103, 112, 129-131, 149-50, 155, 157-9, 164-74, 264, 268, 287. Wallach, Alan P., "The Origins of Thomas Cole's 'Course of Empire,'" M.A. Theses, Columbia University, 1965. Lawall, David B., Asher Brown Durand: His Art and Art Theory in Relation to His Times, partial fulfillment of requirements for PhD, Princeton, 1966, pp. 170-92, 288-9. Callow, James T., Kindred Spirits: Knickerbocker Writers and American Artists, 1807-1855, Durham, North Carolina, The University of North Carolina Press, 1967, p. 157. Annual II: Studies on Thomas Cole, An American Romanticist, Baltimore, Maryland: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1967, pp. 72-4. Wallach, Alan P., "Cole, Byron, and the Course of Empire," The Art Bulletin, Vol. 50, No. 4, December 1968, pp. 375-9. Dunlap, William, A History of the Rise and Progress of The Arts of Design in the United States, A Reprint of the Original 1834 Edition with a New Introduction by James Thomas Flexner, Vol. 2, Part 2, New York: Dover Publications, 1969, p. 366. Baur, John I. H., The Autobiography of Worthington Whittredge 1820-1910, New York: Arno Press, 1969, pp. 40-1. Parry, Elwood, Thomas Cole's "The Course of Empire:" A Study in Serial Imagery, PhD Dissertation, Yale, 1970, pp. 254-60. Glassie, Henry H., "Thomas Cole and Niagara Falls," The New-York Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. LVIII, No. 2, April 1974, p. 89. Novak, Barbara, "The Double-Edged Axe," Art in America, Vol. 64, No. 1, Jan.-Feb. 1976, pp. 44-50. New York State Museum, New York: The State of Art, Albany, New York: The New York State Museum, 1977, pp. 25, 30-1, and exhibition catalog, Mann, Maybelle, The American Art-Union, Jupiter FL: ALM Associates, c. 1977, pp. 15-7. Davidson, Abraham A., The Eccentrics and Other American Visionary Painters, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978, pp. 16-9, 138. Lynes, Russell, "Luman Reed: A New York Patron," Apollo, Vol. 107, No. 192, 1978, pp. 124-9. Cikovsky Jr., Nicolai, "'The Ravages of the Axe:" The Meaning of the Tree Stump in Nineteenth-Century American Art," The Art Bulletin, Vol. 61, No. 4, Dec., 1979, pp. 611-26. Craven, Wayne, "Luman Reed, patron: His Collection and Gallery," The American Art Journal, Vol. XII,, Spring 1980, pp. 43, 45, 50-6. Parry III, Ellwood C., "Thomas Cole's Ideas for Mr. Reed's Doors," The American Art Journal, Vol. XII,, Summer 1980, pp. 33-45. Baigell, Matthew, Thomas Cole, New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1981, pp. 16-9, 49-50, 52, 82. Treuttner, William H., "The Art of History: American Exploration and Discovery Scenes, 1840-1860," The American Art Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Winter 1982, pp. 4-31. Kasson, Joy S., Artistic Voyagers: Europe and the American Imagination in the Works of Irving, Allston, Cole, Cooper and Hawthorne, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982, 84-90, 111-129. Koke, Richard J., American Landscape and Genre Paintings in the New-York Historical Society, Vol. I, New York: The New-York Historical Society, 1982, pp. 192-200. Tammenga, Michael J., The Beautiful, the Sublime, and The Picturesque: British Influences on American Landscape Painting, St. Louis Missouri: Washington University, 1984, p. 57. Maddox, Kenneth W., "Thomas Cole and the Railroad: Gentle Maledictions," Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1, 1986, pp. 2-10. Kelly, Franklin, and Carr, Gerald L., The Early Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church, 1845-1854, Fort Worth, Texas: Amon Carter Museum, 1987, p. 66. Menefee, Ellen Avitts, The Early Biblical Landscapes of Thomas Cole (1825-1829), Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI, 1987, p. 40, 80, 145. Miller, Angela, "Thomas Cole and Jacksonian America: The Course of Empire as Political Allegory," Prospects, Vol. 14, 1989, pp. 65-92. Powell, Earl A., Thomas Cole. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990, pp. 62-71, 184. Foshay, Ella M., Luman Reed's Picture Gallery: Pioneer Collection of American Art, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990, pp. 59-61, 130-40, 207-8. Platt, Susan, "Paradigms and Paradoxes: Nature, Morality, and Art in America," Art Journal, Vol. 51, No. 2, Summer 1992, pp. 82-88. Bryant II, William Cullen, Highlands Sketches: The Hudson River in the Eye of the Beholder, Mount Taurus Press, Nelsonville, New York: 1993, p. 13. Bailey, Brigitte, "The Protected Witness: Cole, Cooper, and the Tourist's View of the Italian Landscape," American Iconology: New Approaches to Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1993, pp. 92, 110. 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Wallach, Alan, "Museums and Resistance to History," The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 21, 1994, pp. B3-5. Cooper, James F., Knights of the Brush: The Hudson River School and the Moral Landscape, New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1999, pp. 31, 45-8, 77, 80. Koja, Stephan, Ed. AMERICA: The New World in 19th-Century Painting, Munich: New York: Prestel, 1999, pp. 25-7, 215, 235. Goldfarb, Hilliard T., Hirschler, Erica E., Lears, T. J. Jackson, Sargeant: The Late Landscapes, Boston: University Press of New England, 1999, pp. 8-9. New-York Historical Society, Perspectives on the Collections of the New-York Historical Society, New York: The New-York Historical Society, 2000, p. 28-30. Georgi, Karen L., Dissertation, "Asher B. Durand's American Landscapes and the Nature of Representation," Boston University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 2000, pp. 115-7. 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Burgard, Timothy Anglin, Ed., "Thomas Cole, Prometheus Bound," Masterworks of American Painting at the De Young, San Francisco: Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2005, pp. 70-3, 483-4. Ramirez, Jan Seidler, "A history of the New-York Historical Society," The Magazine Antiques, January 2005, pp. 140-1. Vedder, Lee A., "Nineteenth-century American paintings," The Magazine Antiques, January, 2005, pp. 148-9. De Salvo, Donna and Norden, Linda, "Course of Empire: Waste and Retrieval," Course of Empire, Exhibition Publication for the United States Pavilion at the 51st International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, June 12-November 6, 2005, n.p. Rothschild, Jan, Soba, Stephen, Bullock, Meghan, "Whitney in Association with Harvard University Art Museums to Present Ed Ruscha's Course of Empire, Currently Representing the United States at the 2005 Venice Biennale," Press Release from the Whitney Museum of American Art, August, 2005, n.p. McDaniel, Amy Ellis, "Works on Paper by Thomas Cole in the Detroit Institute of Arts," Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Vol. 80, No. ½, 2006, pp. 16-25. Keck, Michaela, Walking in the Wilderness: The Peripatetic Tradition in Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Painting, Heidelberg: Winter, 2006, pp. 71-3, 75, 77. Novak, Barbara, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 47-8, 51, 54. Kormhauser, Elizabeth M., "The Hudson River School: Landscape Art in America, 1820-1870," America: Storie di pittura dal Nuovo Mondo", Italy: Linea d'Ombra Libri, 2007, p. 28. Hirshler, Erica Eve, "Nineteenth Century American Painters in Italy's 'Great University of Art,'" America: Storie di pittura dal Nuovo Mondo", Italy: Linea d'Ombra Libri, 2007, p. 75 Vedder, Lee A. "Nineteenth-century American paintings." The Magazine Antiques 167 (2005): 146-155. Bland, Bartholomew F. and Vookles, Laura L. The Panoramic River: The Hudson and the Thames. Yonkers: Hudson River Museum, 2013.
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group