The Course of Empire: Desolation by Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole

The Course of Empire: Desolation, 1836, Oil on canvas, 99.7 x 160.7 cm, New-York Historical Society Museum & Library; Gift of The New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1858.5, Bridgeman Images

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At first glance, it appears to be a poetic vision. The full moon hovers over a tranquil bay. We are standing on a rugged coastline, surrounded by romantic ruins. A lone pillar enveloped in ivy marks perhaps the ideal site for a nightly rendezvous of furtive lovers.

It is, however, a dystopia—the fifth of a quintet of paintings by the British-American artist Thomas Cole (1801–48), which expresses the idea of cyclical history, linked to times of the day and weather patterns. The first work in the series shows mist evaporating from the mountainsides around the bay at sunrise, unveiling a society of hunter-gatherers not unlike some of the Native Americans still roaming the North-American plains and forests in freedom at the time the painting was made. In the second painting, a Stonehenge-like complex has been raised by the water, the focal point of a pastoral society in mid-morning. The third canvas reveals high-noon in a glorious empire—a superlative version of ancient Rome with a triumphal parade crossing a monumental bridge amidst countless temples and fora. Disaster strikes in the fourth painting, where violent climate change and hostile invasion combine to wreck the grandeur. Our work, the fifth and last, depicts merely what remains after the population has been extinguished.

Cole painted the series as a warning for an American empire that was still nascent, with the 25th State (Arkansas) joining the Union in the year the series was completed. It is a secularized prophecy, separated from the biblical notion of the end of days evoked in Daniel 7. Yet, at a time when modern Americans, and indeed everyone in the Western world might wonder at which hour of Cole’s day we find ourselves (at bright noon or on the brink of the tea-time collapse?), its message is no less potent than when voiced by the prophet.



Atack, Carol. 2018. ‘The Art of Historical Development: Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire’,

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