Skip

"First freedom and then Glory - when that fails, Wealth, vice, corruption - barbarism at last"
October 29, 2012 5:43 PM   Subscribe

Savagery - Arcadia - Consummation - Destruction - Desolation. The five stages of The Course of Empire, a fascinating quintet of paintings by 19th century artist and Hudson River School pioneer Thomas Cole. In it, an imaginary settlement by the sea becomes the stage for all the dreams and nightmares of civilized life, a rural woodland grown in time into a glorious metropolis... only to be ransacked by corruption, war, and a terrible storm, at last reduced to a forgotten ruin. At times deceptively simple, each landscape teems with references to cultural and philosophical markers that dominated the era's debate about the future of America. Interactive analysis of the series on a zoomable canvas is available via the excellent Explore Thomas Cole project, which also offers a guided tour and complete gallery of the dozens of other richly detailed and beautifully luminous works by this master of American landscape art.
posted by Rhaomi (23 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh wonderful! This series is beautiful and evocative. Someday I want big, framed versions hanging in my library!
posted by General Tonic at 5:49 PM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


These are interesting and beautiful, but they fail for me by being so relentlessly romantic that they render themselves unable to convey any actual useful insights or lessons about the course of human history and development. The story they tell about the rise and fall of human civilizations is narratively interesting, evocative, and compelling if viewed from a certain pro-imperialist angle, but so completely divorced from truth and from history as to be basically counterproductive in terms of trying to teach the viewer anything about how to structure a just, sustainable, and benevolent society.

Maybe that's not the point, but I still find myself wishing it was and wishing that it were done better.
posted by Scientist at 6:10 PM on October 29, 2012


P.S. Congrats Rhaomi.
posted by Scientist at 6:11 PM on October 29, 2012


These are great...and yes, the relentless romanticism conveys,
for me, a poetic, imagistic kind of truth....like the photos of Man Ray.
posted by eggtooth at 6:35 PM on October 29, 2012


R. Crumb did a series of drawings of a rural American
setting and how it develops over time.... for me, a similar feeling.
posted by eggtooth at 6:39 PM on October 29, 2012


I was able to see these together about eight years ago and they are absolutely stunning.

Scientist, in context of what American painting was at the time (or what history was for that matter) it is remarkable the level of discourse in them. To our modern eye and sensibility now they are a bit schlocky. But at the time these are a pretty significant point in the development of an American style of art; distinct from the pale imitations of European art we had been cranking out.
posted by munchingzombie at 6:40 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not disputing the paintings' impact on American art; I have no trouble believing that they are important paintings in that regard and in any case am totally unqualified to dispute such a claim. I was more lamenting that such important paintings, which are beautiful and eloquent and which represent a turning point in American art, should so crassly communicate validation and support for the civilizational prejudices of the time.

I mean, I get that art almost always comes from and speaks to its contemporary societal zeitgeist, but it's just kind of a shame that it's so unchallenging, so regressively moralizing, and that it panders so blatantly to the preconceptions of its presumably-intended audience, especially when those preconceptions -- that development and technological progress are predestined and unequivocally positive, and may only be challenged by force of arms or the wrath of an angry God -- have proven in retrospect to be so destructive and damaging.
posted by Scientist at 7:00 PM on October 29, 2012


Why am I getting 403 forbidden for the painting links?
posted by telstar at 7:21 PM on October 29, 2012


Reminds me of the competing translations of "Et in Arcadia ego". Or perhaps not competing, but layers of subtlety affecting the connotations of the phrase.
posted by supercres at 7:27 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


> These are interesting and beautiful, but they fail for me by being so relentlessly romantic that they render themselves unable to convey any actual useful insights or lessons about the course of human history and development. The story they tell about the rise and fall of human civilizations is narratively interesting, evocative, and compelling if viewed from a certain pro-imperialist angle, but so completely divorced from truth and from history as to be basically counterproductive in terms of trying to teach the viewer anything about how to structure a just, sustainable, and benevolent society.

Maybe that's not the point, but I still find myself wishing it was and wishing that it were done better


I find this a bizarre reading; my take's always been that it indicates periods of decadence are never truly sustainable, always lead to decay and ruin--ultimately there's always a reckoning after such riches, and the silent impartial witness of the natural world being the passive but enduring ruler of all. I think about this painting cycle all the time given our current physical and political climate; its tale is as relevant as ever.
posted by ifjuly at 7:32 PM on October 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


that development and technological progress are predestined and unequivocally positive, and may only be challenged by force of arms or the wrath of an angry God

That's an astonishing misreading. Cole's theme was almost the exact opposite of that: that imperial glory was fleeting and self-destructive, and inevitably led to the imperial civilization being corrupted by its triumph and eventually destroyed.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 7:34 PM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


I recently got to see this series at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR. They had a special exhibit on the Hudson Valley School. I agree with ifjuly and 'strangely stunted trees' - I felt saddened by they, but they also seemed representative of an inevitable decay.
posted by grimjeer at 7:47 PM on October 29, 2012


I swear that there's an almost identical image to "Destruction" used in one of the "God of War" video games, but the closest ones I could find were this and this.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:03 PM on October 29, 2012


It's a very nice illustration of the five stages, AKA Chaos, Discord, Confusion, Bureaucracy, and The Aftermath.
posted by sfenders at 8:05 PM on October 29, 2012


...but they fail for me by being so relentlessly romantic that they render themselves unable to convey any actual useful insights or lessons about the course of human history and development.

Ah, you have that passion for history that I had when I was young.
posted by ovvl at 8:40 PM on October 29, 2012


Timely, and relevant...well done.
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 9:13 PM on October 29, 2012


I'm shanks deep in a rereading of Aldiss' Helliconia books. This is a delightful serendipity.
posted by mwhybark at 9:20 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, Scientist: what trees noted above is historically correct to Cole's intent, but please don't misunderstand that to invalidate your perceptual analysis.

Instead, look at how it might be that the artist's intended primary narrative objective was so unsuccessfully conveyed to you. What you thought you saw in the paintings is indeed actually what you thought you saw, but that act of perception has little or nothing to do with what was, first, intended, and second, perceived by the intended initial audience.

This sort of thing is extremely useful to keep in mind when looking at art produced by artists and societies considerably more remote in time and socioeconomic structure from us than 19th century America.
posted by mwhybark at 9:27 PM on October 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


I have seen these in person and they are phenomenal. I know it's becoming cliche, but looking at art on your computer monitor, especially something like this, is nothing like seeing the paintings in person.

Not only did I see them, but I was guarding the galleries at the time. One of the advantages of being a lowly museum trash redshirt is that because you MUST spend so much time in the galleries with the art, you develop relationships with pieces that are very different than the sort of thing you get when you voluntarily pick and choose what you look at and how. You get sucked in, discover details and characters, give things their own names and their own lives. They are your windows to other worlds, your portal to escape.


I always thought landscape paintings were boring, too staid, too square. Then I worked in the show that featured these (and they weren't even the showstoppers. There was a Bierstadt that caused signifigant damage to the floor due to my jaw dropping with such great force.) The romanticism that seems cloying on the small screen has a different sort of power when seen in person, and is downright fun if you must spend hours on end in the same room with them.
posted by louche mustachio at 9:49 PM on October 29, 2012 [10 favorites]


I get that art almost always comes from and speaks to its contemporary societal zeitgeist, but it's just kind of a shame that it's so unchallenging, so regressively moralizing, and that it panders so blatantly to the preconceptions of its presumably-intended audience...

That's 1833 - 1836 Mediterranean. Keep in mind that the Parthenon exploded in the late 1600s due to its use as an ammunition locker and (ahem) had its artworks removed and relocated (/ahem) in 1806.

What I'm trying to say here is that you're damned lucky to be able to enjoy Desolation, because it may well have been complete absence of ruins. Early 19th century zeitgeist was to turn this old rock for whatever profit was available.
posted by Graygorey at 10:47 PM on October 29, 2012


Early 19th century zeitgeist was to turn this old rock for whatever profit was available.

It's hard to comprehend that mentality in the early 21st century.
posted by ersatz at 6:29 AM on October 30, 2012


my take's always been that it indicates periods of decadence are never truly sustainable, always lead to decay and ruin--ultimately there's always a reckoning after such riches, and the silent impartial witness of the natural world being the passive but enduring ruler of all.

Well, I think there is also a level of romantic "ruin porn" going on, too. I mean, you want to have a lovely landscape, then improve it with nice buildings, and you want a melancholy last painting, so you need the decadent center to show that they "deserved it" rather than the more sobering "time grinds everything down." Once you get there, you need to show all the opulence and decadence because they really need to deserve it, plus you get the titillation of decadence and the titillation of ruin (and the titillation of moralizing). The guys at the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast muse for quite a bit on this in their show dedicated to "The Doom That Came to Sarnath," where Lovecraft spends and almost indecent amount of time (and words) describing how nice Sarnath is so he can kick it over at the end.

Sorry, that is a bit of a spoiler, but, come on, Doom came, what did you think was going to happen?
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:28 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


There was a Cole exhibit in DC during the late 90s that had both these, and the Voyage of Man series. I believe that it also had the Oxbow and Arcadia series as well, but it could just be the cloud of memory. My mother had introduced me to Cole some time before and we had a book that contained all his major works, but nothing compared to seeing these things up close and realizing that these paintings were so huge. The Consummation of Empire alone is well over 4x6 foot and it's just amazing seeing the attention to detail.

It saddens me that I will probably never see those works of art together in the same place again.
posted by daHIFI at 11:28 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


« Older Documentary   |   What part of "low clearance"... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post