Exploring Thomas Cole at LACMA

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire- The Consummation of Empire, 1836

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

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.

2 thoughts on “Exploring Thomas Cole at LACMA

  1. oh yeah, i love this series of painting–the new york historical society must have loaned out it, since i remember in high school it was like the golden goose or something like that. where i even gave like a little tour of it as a student docent–jesus–a little over 10 years ago….

    interesting comparing it to ‘italian scene composition’. it kinda reminds me of some of the long slow moving shots in one or two Andrei Tarkovsky films

    • Thanks for the comments, Charlie. The painting was a part of a special exhibition and definitely on loan. I’ll have to check out Andrei Tarkovsky for the comparison.

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