Encouraged by the success of his wilderness paintings, Thomas Cole aspired to create ‘a higher style of landscape’. Following English painters such as J.M.W. Turner and John Martin, he expanded the range of American landscape to embrace religious, moral and mythological themes usually reserved for history painting.
Treating biblical subjects like The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden as landscapes, Cole adopted a fiery, dramatic style ultimately derived from the seventeenth-century Italian painter of the sublime, Salvator Rosa.
Shown in this room is Cole’s most ambitious work, the five-painting series The Course of Empire, which charts the history of an imaginary nation, clearly alluding to the rise and fall of ancient Rome but with implications for modern London and even contemporary America under the expansionist President Andrew Jackson.
Politically conservative figures like Cole were horrified by the rapid transformations caused by industrialisation, territorial expansion and the unrestrained growth of cities. A distinctive mountain peak provides a backdrop before which the historical pageant unfolds. The opening canvas depicting a primitive Savage State, with a hunting scene, is followed by a classical idyll reflecting the Pastoral or Arcadian stage of civilisation. Wealth and military power have reached their zenith in Consummation of Empire. In Destruction and Desolation, the empire suffers the consequences of decadence and corruption.
In Cole’s cycle, American landscape painting emerged as an art both of aesthetic quality and of intellectual ambition. Artists influenced by Cole, notably Asher Durand and Jasper Francis Cropsey, constructed their own apocalyptic or allegorical commentaries on the state of civilisation and their expectations for it.