• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Thomas Cole: The Course Of Empire

September 2018


Every great work of art wears two faces: one looks squarely toward its own time, the other, toward eternity. The one is immediate and proximate, the other distant and abiding. This, at least, is the opinion of the cosmopolitan pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. It was an insight at which he arrived while writing the book, Parallels and Paradoxes with his unlikely co-author, countryman, and late friend, Edward Said.


Barenboim and Said certainly made for an intriguing intellectual pair; the latter was a Palestinian-born, Egyptian-raised, American-educated professor of colonialism and its ill-effects. Few other Arab-American intellectuals (save, perhaps, the Iranian-born Hossein Nasr) have had so vital an impact on the subject this side of the River Jordan. The former, Barenboim, was born in Argentina, but he quickly came to be the preeminent citizen-musician of the world. Having been born in that unstable South American country, he was soon brought to the slightly more unstable nation of Israel. There he was raised and educated and refined in his craft. Both he and Said had claims to Palestine as a native or an adopted home, to which Barenboim has since added Spain for good measure.


Barenboim remains a luminous figure in his field, while simultaneously and gently encroaching those of others. His accolades include honorary titles and degrees from Britain, France, Germany, and Spain. The prestige bestowed upon him throughout the course of his professional career boggles the mind, and for that reason, I’ll celebrate him no longer here.

More relevant to me is his comment about art. In uttering it, he was thinking about the essence of the greatest works and their inherent, brilliant qualities. It is these qualities that make them last from the moment of their introduction until the end of time. He was pondering what exactly it is that causes them to endure, not only in our eyes, but in all ages and in the hearts and in the sentiments of all posterity to come.


And while I do subscribe to the belief that great art does in fact wear various faces, I break with Barenboim in thinking they number only two. So far as art is concerned, present and future can’t be all that there is. What, I ask him, does he make of the past? After all, is not the present moment—the one that so frustratingly darts in front of and away from us—merely a continuation of the past? I daresay that’s all the present really is—the past in perpetual motion. It’s history moving ever-onward until it encounters a future we’ll no sooner reach.

Art, then, in its final tally, wears three faces and not two: one looks around itself with feet entrenched in the here and now; the second, looks toward eternity and the future’s auditors who’ve not yet been born; the third, and in my opinion, the most important and final face stares into the past. After all, ars longa, vita brevis: art is long, life—short, and two faces can’t grasp its timeless expanse.


No piece of artwork better expresses this than Thomas Cole’s, The Course of Empire, which I’ve come as of late to regard as my favorite painting. Rather, I should say “paintings”, as Cole’s best-known work is a composition of five interdependent pieces that can, if forced to do so, stand in high acclaim on their own. Though impressive in and of themselves (if taken and viewed a la carte, one by one), their combination is an affirmation of the idea that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. In its entirety it’s best received and understood.


More vividly than most works of art can hope to do, Cole’s masterpiece tells a story. It’s not just any story though—it’s our story. From the first splash of paint on the canvas to the last corner shaded in, the work is a captivating narrative to which we can all relate. The same, I don’t think, can be said of many of the classical and religious works of art that we so justifiably esteem. Paintings of titans and Christ, satyrs and cherubs will always grip us (especially those of us living in the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian West), but not all of us and not in the same way. Those sorts of works tell allegorical, eschatological, or mythological tales that are culturally specific. They’ll impress themselves firmly and, of course, aesthetically on some, but not all. The Course of Empire, on the other hand, a secular and generalizable story, succeeds in touching everyone.


Its story is universal—its peril intimate and real. It needn’t be deciphered nor unpacked by those studied in Sophocles and Moses. One needn’t know of Athens, nor Olympus, nor Galilee to appreciate its lesson. The Korean or the African, having no knowledge of Zeus or Yahweh, can understand Cole’s intent.


Like Virgil did Dante, Cole takes you by the hand through each stage of civilization. To do so, by necessity, he wears the third of three masks and begins in the past.


He begins by first taking you to the “Savage” or primitive state of man. “Savage”, however, might be something of a misnomer. It looks not to be savage in the solitary, nasty, brutish, short and Hobbesian sense of the word. Rather, the humans sparsely populating this scene appear to be working in accordance with the virgin earth and in relative peace. Lightly clad bandsmen hold up cudgels and spears in pursuit of the hunt. In this case, it’s deer rather than their fellow man. Others gather in the background to celebrate what looks to be their recent and long-awaited advent of fire. The smoke is such that it looks as though it were an early attempt to supplicate to the gods. Looming over this bucolic valley is a large mountain, and all is happening in the morning of the day.


Cole then proceeds to move you along into the “Arcadian” or pastoral stage of life. It looks as though it were the rustic town of Tempe or the ancient city of Arcady, in whose dales Keats penned his most-cherished ode. It’s there we see the happy boughs and the leaf-fringed poets who can’t bid the Spring adieu. Perhaps Pythagoras, maybe even an anticipation of Euclid works on geometric shapes in the foreground. In the middle and rear, tillage is beginning—agriculture and acquisition are surely close behind. Ladies have garlands, men (at least a few of them) have leisure time, and a henge has been erected where once tents stood. Now, the megalith encloses the fire, whose smoke is even more profuse. Surely, superstition has been elevated to its predictable next step—organized religion. And so, they offer their gratitude to their gods in the spring and late-morning of their lives.


From late-morning to high-noon, the splendor that is civilization appears on the third panel. Of all five, this image is the most auspicious and glorious to behold. It’s the very efflorescence of life—mankind in full bloom. In the blink of an eye, a beautiful and opulent city has arisen from the previously barren earth. To this vivacious scene, Cole affixes the name, “Consummation”; it’s civilization at its peak. The columns supporting the arched domes are of every polished make and model: Corinthian at their most ornate, Ionic if only less so, and Doric at their humblest. Gilded statuary stands atop them if they’re not already preoccupied with a dome. All is a splendor and a jubilee. The people inhabiting this prosperous nation are clad in voluptuous robes bathed in iridescent dyes. Imperial reds, effeminate pinks, and manly greens and blues dance upon the eye as the people dance in the street. Below, on the water, ships have become daring and busy and laden with trade. Compasses in hand and sails at their hoist, the city’s bold mariners are leaving behind their majestic entrepôt for waters unknown. When finally they return, they’ll share and they’ll augment their city’s endless wealth.


Alas, the moment an empire begins using a word like “endless”, is the moment it’s probably quite near its own end. Endless, then, becomes a synonym for decadence, and decadence for destruction, which is the title used for Cole’s fourth stage. Antithetical to that which preceded it, this panel is an absolute horror show. The movement of the scene is from the bottom-right to the top-left and the gratuitous violence never ceases. It’s by far the most active, and ultimately, destructive of all the paintings. The sun has been completely obscured in the late-afternoon of this civilization and beneath its fog, the city has been torn asunder. Turbulent waves shake the sea as those once nimble ships begin toppling over. In the background, the ever-present mountain still stands, but a conflagration burns the town not far from it. The bridge and the polis are on the verge of collapse. A woman, desperate at world’s end, chooses to leap to her death, rather than subject herself to the violation that awaits her should she fall into a licentious invader’s hands. One final supplicant beseeches a headless god as he’s pulled down into oblivion. The god, to everyone’s great surprise, is completely silent.


Such is the fifth and final panel. That is, in a word, quiet. Entitled, “Desolation”, the once gaudy metropolis is hardly a memory as our eyes scan the now ruptured scene. The picture is eerily still as nothing in it—not a human nor an animal nor a breeze—dares to stir. Alone in the foreground is a singular column—a remnant of what once was a city in all its grandiosity and pomp. It stands there in focus, erect and obstinate, as if one last homage to the past. At its base there creeps a tangle of vines and grass and above it lies a mantle of trees. Other columns remain further behind, but all are just as confined to ruins. All around, statuary has become shrubbery, vessels have turned into coral reefs, and temples have crumbled into piles of dirt. All former pigments have returned to their original hue of green. In all of the image, Mother Nature is reclaiming that which she only leased. The land was always hers, we now clearly see, from the outset until the very end. We were only temporary tenants. The city, if still it can be called that, has been recalled whence it sprang. At Mother Nature’s sweep, and with no shortage of help from man, it’s well on its way to returning to the days of its savage and pre-human past. The moon marking the end of the day hasn’t yet hit its apogee, but it’s on its pursuit.


Some consider Cole’s masterpiece too political for their taste. Others think it too deterministic. Still others think it’s both. I, for one, admit that I’m left questioning whether or not the life of a civilization is really as foreordained as he makes it appear. Is it nothing more than a historical wheel moving inexorably toward despair? History might say yes, but humanity is prone not to listen when she speaks. We are, in this way, a curiously stubborn species. Friedrich Nietzsche, speaking of curiosities, captured this peculiarity well. “The great end of art”, said he, “is to strike the imagination with the power of a soul that refuses to admit defeat, even in the midst of a collapsing world”. Cole provides us with just that kind of collapsing world. The unanswered sixth panel of his work is whether or not humankind awakens itself again. Nevertheless, it’s a valuable lesson: to know where we should go, we must watch, humbly and without delusion, the evolution and destruction of our past.

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