Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire at The National Gallery

Currently on at the National Gallery in London is Thomas Cole’s exquisite exhibition, ‘Eden to Empire’. The exhibition includes over 50 works, including Cole’s iconic painting cycle, ‘The Course of Empire’ and the stunning master piece - which has never before been seen in the UK - ‘View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow’. Also featured are paintings by various British artists with whom Cole was personally acquainted, as well as paintings by those who influenced him most, including Joseph Mallord William Turner and John Constable. 

Cole was a self taught English-born American painter known for his landscapes and history paintings He is one of the major 19th century American painters, and was the founder of the Hudson River School. He is known for his beautifully romantic portrayal of American wilderness, that was largely still unspoiled in his time. 

The main focal point of this exhibition is Cole’s phenomenal painting cycle, ‘The Course of Empire’, a series of paintings that explore Cole’s significant distaste for manmade destruction on nature. The series begins with ‘The Course of Empire: The Savage State’ (around 1834), which shows an incredibly beautiful scene of greenery and blooming life of plants and natures pure untouched beauty. In the foreground stands a man with a bow, while new England/Native American style tents are situated by a river near a collection of canoes - signifying the start of colonisation. The camp is set up in a circle, representing the start of where a temple will later be built in arcadian state. In the background a mountain towers over the scene. This mountain can  be seen in each painting throughout the series, representing a natural stability. The mountain towers over the landscape, as nature watches and waits to take control. 

The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State’  shows a gradual takeover by man and the arts as children are seen drawing on the roads while a man plays the pipes. Soldiers seen in the painting portend future violence, and giant tree stumps foreshadow the environmental costs of progress. Where the circle of tents were once situated now stands the beginnings of a circular temple, indicating the beginning of the architectural takeover. 

Viewers are then left astounded as the next part of the series, ‘The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire’ shows the same landscape, however aside from the mountain in the background it is virtually unrecognisable. Buildings cover the entire surface of the land, while bridges streak across the rivers. An Emperor is seen making his way across a bridge, an elephant marching in front of him - presumably this was Cole’s dig at the British for their colonisation of India. African slaves are being dragged along the bridge, followed by looted treasures from their homeland. Cole’s use of stunning colours, perfectly capture the essence of life and light; water and sky appear woven together seamlessly and appear as though glistening. The end result of this painting shows a gorgeous landscape and wildlife community completely taken over by civilisation. 

Mankind is fighting. Luxuries are debased. The once cream roads of the city run red as innocents are butchered in the streets. ‘The Course of Empire: Destruction’. The inevitable has happened as mankind turns on itself, once again destroying the surroundings in the process. The majority of the city is aflame, a scenario which could possibly have been inspired by Cole’s childhood memories of arson and fire. While women and children are lying injured a gladiator statue towers over the city, his head lies broken on the floor beside him as he failed to protect his city and its inhabitants. Viewers may find the stance of the gladiator familiar as he is posed in the same position as the hunter from ‘The Savage State’, a pose which was inspired by the Borghese gladiator. ‘Destruction’ shows all the achievements of civilisation destroyed. 

After turning on itself and running itself into the ground, civilisation ceases to exist and nature begins to reclaim the earth. ‘The Course of Empire: Desolation’ shows the effects from mankind beginning to heal. The art and architecture created by mankind is resolving into nature. The earth is starting fresh while the mountain remains standing tall in the background; it watched and it waited and eventually was able to reclaim its home. Cole adds a slight touch of humour to ‘Desolation’ with a barely visible face in the moon, who winks out at viewers. 

With various times of the day as settings for each painting ‘The Course of Empire’ takes viewers on a journey that shows mankind will inevitably lead to destruction, and at the end nature will always be there to take back what it’s owed. Cole created this series of works as a warning to modern America regarding it’s greed. A warning which was, unfortunately, not heeded.

With his works Cole continued to reject government expansion policies. He constantly tried to to express his views to Americans to minimalize industrial progress taking over America’s beautiful, natural wildlife. One of his most famous paintings, ‘The Oxbow’ was an attempt to speak to America, while ‘Course of Empire’ was a message to the then president, who was interested in building bigger and better, solely focused on greed and possessions, not the American landscape. 

Titans Goblet’ 1833, humours the idea that the Earth was inhabited by giants. This was possibly inspired by Turners ‘Ulysses deriding Polyphemus’.  The painting shows a ginormous goblet, in the centre of vast amounts of greenery, taken over by nature. On the rim of the goblet tiny buildings and aqueduct ruins are visible. 

In ‘View on the Catskill - Early Autumn’ 1836-37, Cole wanted to capture the beauty before a railway took over. In the scene a mother can be seen bringing flowers to her baby, a hunter returns home, and in the background a farmer can be seen chasing his horses in huge, luscious fields. The stunning scene is swept away in ‘River on Catskill’ as smoke is seen spewing from a locomotive that poisons the wildlife as it crashes through the land. No more happy scenes of parents and their children or animals roaming. ‘River on Catskill’ most certainly contains a more ominous feel, that leaves viewers with trembling goosebumps when they recall the delicate beauty they saw in ‘View on the Catskill’  that has now perished. A man with an axe is shown surrounded by tree stumps. He is the destroyer of nature. The entire painting is incredibly sorrowful, and it is truly a sad sight to see the difference and the changing of brilliant scenes of nature. Viewers will feel a sense of loss and mourning that spills out of the painting. 

The Oxbow’ simultaneously shows both sides of nature. The right side of the painting shows light in the pale harmonious sky, with luscious green grass and fields spanning across further than the eye can see. Nature and wildlife thrive everywhere; the river snapping through the fields, delivering life. On the left side of the painting, a painter is shown capturing the beautiful scene before him. Behind him the death of nature creeps up. Trees have been cutdown and are left to die. Darker paint tones have been used to portray the dark, cloudy sky that looms over the right side of the painting like a poisonous, destructive wave. 

Cole left behind a brilliant legacy as he founded the first national school of landscape art in America, ‘The Hudson River School’. While Cole’s technique and aesthetic had a lasting impact, his responsibilities to societies attitude towards landscape became lost. Artists increasingly championed the theory that national expansion was their God given right - the very antithesis of Cole’s beliefs. 

One student who stood by Cole’s beliefs was Frederick Edwin Church. Church was a student at The Hudson River School and one of his most beautiful paintings, featured at this exhibition, is ‘Above the Clouds at Sunrise’ 1849. The use of light and colour is exceptionally stunning with an unusual usage of pink, a colour not commonly seen in landscape paintings, contrasting perfectly with the typical greenery. In the painting nature is thriving and viewers can not see what is hidden beneath the cloud. Viewers can not see what man is possibly doing to the land below - ignorance is bliss. 

‘Eden to Empire’ is a rare chance to see Cole’s epic works; allowing viewers to observe the rise and fall of empires and lose themselves in the American wilderness.


‘Eden to Empire’ is on display until October 7th at the National Gallery. More information may be found here.

Art, Current ExhibitionsEnnigaldi