Painting 5, “Desolation"
Guide students through silent but systematic individual observations of each of the five paintings in the series, which will occur for the remainder of class one. Student observations lay the groundwork for both subsequent homework and the ensuing class discussion the following day. Have students spend approximately five minutes viewing each painting. Indicate to students that for each of the following paintings, they should spend one or two minutes simply carefully viewing, thinking, and reacting to the painting. Then, they should briefly note in writing as specifically as possible their reactions and thoughts about each painting after each separate viewing. Focusing questions you might want to use for this exercise include the following: What mood does the painting evoke? What is the painting literally depicting? What might it be symbolically be depicting?
(Author’s note: The paintings are powerful in a unique way, and student fascination with the series was particularly enhanced when I zoomed in on different parts of a painting to introduce students to nuances they might have otherwise missed).
Near the end of class one, indicate to students that they are asked to complete a homework assignment that I hope will deepen their reflections about the paintings in the series and prepare the class for an extended discussion on the essential topic of their study. Distribute or have students access online an abridged version of Matthew Bristley’s “How to Analyze an Artistic Work.” Students will access the series again for homework at http://www.explorethomascole.org/tour/items/63/series/.
Students will again view the paintings, read a brief biography of Cole at http://thomascole.org/biography-of-thomas-cole/, and utilize the abridged “How to Analyze an Artistic Work” to write a one-to two-page response to the Course of Empire series based upon most of criterion in the document. Note: An abridged version of the original worksheet by Matthew Bristley is available at this link (estimated time, thirty minutes).
Class No. 2
Begin class by reading a quotation from the famous British Romantic poet Lord Byron (1788–1824), who profoundly influenced Cole to the extent that the artist used Byron’s lines to promote the series
(from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, 1818):
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...
Begin class by again asking an extension of the question posed the previous day: Why do great nations rise and fall? How do they rise and seemingly cannot last? Have students paraphrase or read their responses to the questions below from:
“How to Analyze an Artistic Work.”
In the title
List the basic information of the piece: artist’s name, title, date, medium, size, and location. Example:
Botticelli, Primavera, 1482. Tempera on wood, 80 × 124 in. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Michelangelo, David, 1504. Marble, 17 ft. Piazza della Signoria, Florence.
What immediately catches your eye?
What is the subject matter (what’s happening in the artwork)?
Is there a message? How is that message communicated to the viewer (briefly)?
Analysis of technique
Where is the light coming from in the painting/drawing and how is it used?
What is the perspective of the painting/drawing and how is that significant?
What was going on in America when Cole painted this series?
Who do you think his intended audience was?
What do you think his intended message(s) was?
Author’s notes on student reactions: With the knowledge of where Cole was from and when he lived, students are beginning to place this series of paintings within the context of American history. For example, one student said, “The second painting ('The Arcadian or Pastoral State') reminds me a little of Thomas Jefferson’s idealized, agrarian state, and the second-to-last painting ('Destruction') reminded me of his warning about cities and urbanization."
One student asked a very thought-provoking question, “I wonder how Cole would have altered his paintings if he had painted them after the Civil War?” Discussion at this point started to orient itself around a comparison with the Founders’ hopes and fears of America (Jefferson in particular came up a good deal).
Now, have students negotiate the interpretation questions in the analysis worksheet that are critical for the concluding discussion for class two:
What was the artist’s intention with creating this work? Did he or she succeed?
How does the artwork make you feel? What is your reaction to it? Why do you react so?
Critical judgment: Is it good; is it true; is it beautiful? Why or why not?
After students respond, again revisit the foundational question by using the following or similar language: Based on your work with these paintings from Cole, how and why do nations become powerful, and how and why do they fall?
Author’s note on students’ reactions: Because of our earlier study of governmental power in this course, students know the danger of centralized power. In light of that previous learning, students talked a great deal about the transition from “Pastoral” to “Consummation.” More particularly, students were very curious about the role that power played in these two paintings and, therefore, what the allocation of power says about why a nation would rise or fall. For example, one student observed that ‘Pastoral’ did not seem to have a clear “king” or ruling class, while ‘Consummation’ certainly does. The class then spent a few minutes discussing what has happened to the locus of control/power between the two paintings and whether or not that was a good thing. One possibility here (that I used) would be to redirect conversation for a few minutes to this question: In our study of American history, what evidence can we point to that would show whether or not our nation’s government has become more or less powerful? What effects does this centralization have upon citizens?
End the discussion with a final question utilizing the following or similar language: In light of your work with the Cole series, where do you see the United States in this spectrum between birth, growth, decay, death? Do we fit any of the paintings particularly well? Do you see evidence we can use to support our claim(s)? Do you think this “course of empire” is inevitable? Why or why not?
It is important to point out to students that Cole, like Thomas Jefferson, had what many would consider an overly romantic view of the virtues of agrarian, pastoral societies and a distrust of cities. If necessary, have students consider the costs as well as the benefits of forms of human organization that are similar to the views of Jefferson or Cole. Also, pose this question: Are cycles of history inevitable, or is the view they exist too narrow and an oversimplification?
Author’s notes on students’ reactions: This was probably the students’ favorite part. Since there had been a full semester of learning about the founding of the country and lessons in citizenship, the students were very engaged with the question. One student said, “The U.S. is clearly in the stage of ‘Consummation.’” To this, another student respectfully responded: “How can you say that with everything going on in our country today? If we aren’t there already, we are definitely headed toward ‘Destruction’ because of our materialism and consumerism. Didn’t you see that the religious symbol [the temple] in ‘Destruction’ was absent, after it had was born in ‘Pastoral’ and grown to fruition in ‘Consummation’?” This back-and-forth dialogue took the class in a good direction. The rest of class was spent in a vibrant discussion of this initial disagreement, followed by a discussion of what the proper response of citizens ought to be. Should that response change in light of where the nation is on the “the course”? If so, how? This question is where the class ended.
Editor’s note: Further work on Cole after the module is taught provides even more fruitful opportunities to extend this module, which is a major reason for the expansion of the two-day option to possibly three class periods. Pennsylvania Art Professor Robb Bomboy has an excellent documentary on the series called The Course of Empire: Thomas Cole’s Warning for America, available at:
http://youtu.be/tA2bnof3-D8. It draws on Cole’s journal and related scholarship to indicate that the artist was significantly troubled by the Andrew Jackson Presidency and presents some evidence that the monarch being crowned in “The Consummation of Empire” was symbolically representative of Jackson. Excerpts from the documentary or even a complete showing will definitely enrich learning in the module.
If a third class day is devoted to the module, it is highly recommended that instructors assign or utilize excerpts from Anthony Comegna’s superb essay “Art as Ideas: Thomas Cole's The Course of Empire":
The author situates Cole as not only a landscape art pioneer but part of a new generation of New York-based artists and intellectuals, “The New Americans,” who were attempting to create an authentic new American culture. Cole shared many of these views but was personally conservative and disposed toward the newly emerging Whig Party idea of ordered liberty.
Both the documentary and the essay stress the profound influence exerted upon Cole’s series by his emotional response to visiting the ruins of Ancient Rome and contemplation of where America seemed to be heading.
This module’s major purpose is to make students who have a basic understanding of American history and government deeply consider such critical questions as the tension between freedom and authority, the effect of corruption on government, the relationship between power and its abuse, and the pitfalls an overemphasis on materialistic values impose on any political system. Discussion will necessarily be subjective, and in many instances, there are no narrowly correct answers to these profound questions. However, the conscientiousness with which students prepare homework and the quality and seriousness of their classroom discussion can be assessed.
References and Resources
http://www.explorethomascole.org/: This is a web project by the Thomas Cole National Historic Site dedicated to exploring and analyzing the work of the painter Thomas Cole.
http://thomascole.org/biography-of-thomas-cole/: This is a link to a biography of Thomas Cole by the Thomas Cole National Historic Site.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tA2bnof3-D8: This is a link to the documentary The Course of Empire: Thomas Cole's Warning to America by Pennsylvania Art Professor Robb Bomboy on YouTube.
https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/art-music-and-film/essays/natures-nation-hudson-river-school-and-american-landscape: This link takes readers to “Nature’s Nation”: The Hudson River School and American Landscape Painting, 1825–1876 by Linda Ferber from the Gilder-Lehrman Institute.
https://www.libertarianism.org/columns/art-ideas-thomas-coles-course-empire: Anthony Comegna’s essay “Art as Ideas: Thomas Cole's The Course of Empire" is available from the Libertarianism website.