Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Savage State, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, The Consummation of Empire, Destruction, Desolation, 1833-36
With The Course of Empire, Thomas Cole achieved what he described as a “higher style of landscape,” one suffused with historical associations, moralistic narrative, and what the artist felt were universal truths about mankind and his abiding relationship with the natural world. In a letter to his patron Luman Reed, Cole wrote enthusiastically of an idea for his first large-scale allegorical series:
A series of pictures might be painted that should illustrate the History of a natural scene, as well as be an Epitome of Man—showing the natural changes of Landscape & those effected by man in his progress from Barbarism to Civilization, to Luxury, the Vicious state or state of destruction and to the state of Ruin & Desolation.
The philosophy of my subject is drawn from the history of the past, wherein we see how nations have risen from the Savage state to that of Power & Glory & then fallen & become extinct…
Reed accepted the artist’s proposal, and Cole worked on The Course of Empire for the next three years. The five paintings were specifically designed for a prominent spot in Reed’s third floor picture gallery in his New York City mansion at No. 13 Greenwich Street. They chart the course of human civilization, while at the same time progressing through different times of day and various weather conditions, reflecting man’s changing relationship to his environment. (via)