This spring I saw, for the first time, the paintings that form the first and greatest disaster movie: The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole. I first saw them in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they were lent by the New York Historical Society, for a large Thomas Cole retrospective. They are currently on exhibition in London at the National Gallery.

Cole is best known for being the first major American artist, though he was born in Lancashire he moved to America and largely remained there – unlike American artists Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley who were American born but lived and worked in London (nevertheless, they always identified as Americans, even during the American Revolution).

Cole’s contribution to painting si often considered to be his depiction of the American landscape particularly the Hudson Valley, and indeed these are remarkable paintings. However to me these pale in comparison to his strange and compelling series The Course of Empire.

(all image from Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise indicated)

THE SAVAGE STATE: the primeval world, hunter-gatherers.
THE PASTORAL STATE – looks like ancient Greece

The Pastoral State is largely ideal, a society where people live close to nature, and art is important – Cole shows a young boy in the foreground, drawing. However, we also see a soldier and a boat being built – hints of things to come.

THE CONSUMMATION OF THE EMPIRE – the Empire has grown into a huge, rich society full of bling.
my (unretouched) photo of the painting shows that Cole used a lot off pink, red and gold paint to convey the sense of sensuality and lavishness of the Empire

However, all good things come to an end. The Empire gets decadent, makes enemies, and eventually is invaded and destroyed.

The Destruction – an invading army arrives by boat; we see fire, death and destruction.

The Destruction scene is very exciting like a film, painted in fine detail; we see the fear in the whites of the eyes of the people as they fell or fall to their deaths while trying to flee. It’s an extraordinary rendering of a scene.


DESOLATION Nature takes back its territory, only birds and beasts survive

This fascinating series was painted at a time when apocalyptic pictures were fashionable. Lots of artists painted them, form giant canvases of the Flood to variations on the end of the world. Most of them were not nearly as good as Cole’s masterpiece series.

One of my favorites, though,  is Karl Bryullov’s The Last Day of Pompeii



Bryullov, who spent time in Italy  and was aware of (and probably saw) the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, here depicts the natural disaster as an experience of characters. The huge painting was so popular it inspired the English author Edward Bulwer Lytton to write the novel The Last Day of Pompeii, which established a taste for exciting novels set in ancient Rome. The novel has various theatrical derivations and was an early candidate for film adaptation.

Cole’s painting series doesn’t have characters, it’s an overview, a blockbuster storyboard of the rise and fall of an empire. The images are cinematic and  compelling, and definitely worth seeing live rather than on the Internet. What struck me immediately when I saw them is the narrative of imperial rise and fall, decadence and destruction, of human values and the role of fate in human endeavour.

The films that came to mind immediately when i saw the series was Star Wars!


Thomas Cole:
Eden to Empire
Until 7 October 2018
Watch empires rise and fall, and lose yourself in the vast American wilderness, in the first UK exhibition dedicated to Thomas Cole