The Course of Empire is a five-part series of paintings created by Thomas Cole in the years 1833-36. It is notable in part for reflecting popular American sentiments of the times, when many saw pastoralism as the ideal phase of human civilization, fearing that empire would lead to gluttony and inevitable decay. The theme of cycles is also one that Cole returned to frequently, such as in his The Voyage of Life series.
The series comprises the following works: The Course of Empire – The Savage State; The Course of Empire – The Arcadian or Pastoral State; The Course of Empire – The Consummation of Empire; The Course of Empire – Destruction; and The Course of Empire – Desolation. The series of paintings depicts the growth and fall of an imaginary city, situated on the lower end of a river valley, near its meeting with a bay of the sea. The valley is distinctly identifiable in each of the paintings, in part because of an unusual landmark: a large boulder is precariously situated atop a crag overlooking the valley. Some critics believe this is meant to contrast the immutability of the earth with the transience of man. A direct source of literary inspiration for The Course of Empire paintings is Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812–18). Cole quoted this verse, from Canto IV, in his newspaper advertisements for the series:
There is the moral of all human tales;
‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory – when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption – barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page…