Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, The Consummation of Empire, 1836
Upon seeing Thomas Cole’s The Course of the Empire (1834-36) quintet in LACMA’s Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School, I couldn’t help but notice its similarities to his Italian Scene Composition (1833).
Positioned outside the central gallery that housed his five large-scale paintings, which was accessible from every other point in the exhibition, the painting seemed to be trying to either guide visitors into the gallery or catch a last peek of the paintings, which, although painted after Italian Scene Composition, seem to represent the hopeful future to The Course of the Empire‘s rise and ruin.
Taking place over time in the same location, the five paintings
represent the course of civilization from The Savage State
, in which man lives amidst wilderness, to The Arcadian or Pastoral State
where civilization developed, to The Consummation of Empire
, which depicts the most decadent Italian celebration, to Destruction,
which shows a war-torn and ravaged marble city, and finally Desolation
, a scene in which vines and plants grow over the ruins of the empty city.
Thomas Cole, Italian Scene Composition, 1833
If The Course of the Empire
can be viewed as a warning of what becomes of civilization, perhaps Italian Scene Composition
is a hopeful silver lining for the survivors of Desolation.
In the painting, a man leans against a crumbled column. He looks out at a vista of nature and ruins (which resemble those in The Course of the Empire
) and at three people dancing (a possible homage to the Bacchanalian dances Cole would’ve seen depicted in Italian masterworks during his European tour, as well as a reminder of the colorful future of painting in Henri Matisse’s Bonheur de Vivre
(1905-06) that would come out of Europe only 70 years later ). The man’s reflection is clear in a fountain similar to the one in which partiers splash in Consummation
and dead bodies float in Destruction.
The painting both balances Cole’s European influences with his depictions of sublime, beautiful American landscapes just as in it, man seems to have found not only a balance, a way to live in harmony with nature, but also the leisure so aspired to by all civilizations.