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The Course of Empire: The Savage State Essay

In the first painting from Thomas Cole’s five part collection, a hunter in skins chasing his prey is depicted along with immigrants from lands unknown paddling their boats upriver. One can also see the thick undergrowth, giving emphasis to the virgin lands. The presence and the direction of the thick clouds and fog around the mountain in the background can be interpreted as a veil, a representation for the unknown territory that is slowly being unveiled.

The smoke and clouds are moving away from the dawn; the dawn can symbolize knowledge and discovery, an effective tool for unveiling the dangerous and the unknown. In the beginning, before technological advancements, there was man alone in the wilds, fighting for the basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter in order to survive, trekking through the unknown and the unfriendly terrain. The hunter in the foreground is painted in brown; it represents man in his basest form and is in the mercy of external forces.

Another way to survive is to trek the savage seas to find a more fruitful way of living, ceaselessly making new discoveries in the name of necessity. Since the human race is one of a kind, they realized that chances of survival were greater if they were to stay in groups, thus the birth of a new settlement. In terms of light, the artist used light colors to indicate the breaking dawn, foreshadowing the beginning of a new age. Dark colors were also used to depict the turbulence of the skies, showing nature as untamable, unpredictable, and harsh, a constant obstacle to survival.

Shadows were used in some parts of the painting indicating the undiscovered, the uncharted and the untouched, suggesting dread and danger hiding in the darkness, a threat to man’s life. The settlement on the right side of the painting however was colored lightly, standing out among the shadows. This can be interpreted as a discovery or a start of the city that was to bloom amidst the savage lands and a hope for a brighter tomorrow. The fires above the settlement can also interpreted as the start of the deterioration and destruction of nature in man’s attempts to control it, for the advancement of civilization.

In terms of strokes and movement, the painting can be seen as moving towards the right, with the aid of the formation of the rocks, the smoke of the fires and the fog all leading to the settlement among the shadows being its focal point. From this painting, one can interpret that every civilization’s origins, great or small, can be traced to their birth from savage, uncharted lands where the natural originally prevailed. Also, that in order for man’s empire to advance, man must make sacrifices such as abandoning the simple life and taking advantage of the fruits that the natural world has to offer instead of treating it as an enemy.

One can even say that Thomas Cole used the concept of an “Empire” to represent civilization and the age of man. The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State In the second painting, we see the clear sky indicating morning which can be interpreted as civilization in its early stages. Much of the dark shadows in the sky have lifted, showing most of the scene, banishing ignorance and the mysterious dangers from the previous painting, showing a quiet and a less harsh land. The use of colors can be interpreted as the man living in the light of knowledge and discovery of survival techniques.

As compared to the first painting, the second shows land’s habitability, given emphasis by the people around: man has reached the point that survival is no longer the main issue and has time for recreation and has become accustomed to what is natural. Man co-exists with nature and has become accustomed to his place in the natural yet there is not much greenery as compared to the previous painting since it can be interpreted that man has learned to at least use the natural to his advantage, as depicted by the boat building activity in the background.

Also, since man co-exists with nature, he is able to not only harness it but is able to either sit down or take a walk to appreciate the bounty that he possesses. Man has also discovered spirituality, as represented by the temple-like structure in the background, fire indicating what may be burnt sacrifices or man’s prayers rising towards the heavens. The use of dark color in the smoke can be a foreshadowing of what was to come, with man’s discovery of power and purpose. In terms of movement, one’s eyes will first see the flatness of the foreground and the colors that are in the lower right side.

The light hue of green that was used to color the greenery, the flatness of the land and the softness of the trees, leaves and grass can represent the nature being “friendly” to man since it is easier to travel on it as opposed to the rocky surfaces and the rough undergrowth in the “The Savage Land”. Also, in this piece, every detail, light and beauty of nature can been seen while in the first painting, the trees and plants were depicted as “unfriendly” and frightening. As the eyes upward, some of the land is depicted as rocky since man has not fully taken control of nature.

Travelling to the upper left, the scenery exudes peace and beauty, in contrast to the harsh and terrifying atmosphere of the first painting. The focal point of the painting is the mountain with a rock balanced on its top, showing the viewers that it was the same location, with a different atmosphere and look for man has gained the knowledge and power to co-exist with nature. The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire In the “Consummation of Empire, a glorious city at noon is depicted; this can be interpreted as a civilization at the peak of their power and glory.

With the use of light, the artist has depicted everything in clarity, minimizing his use of dark colors and shadows to indicate total enlightenment. It is seen that man has taken total control of nature and has shaped the face of the land in his own design. The terrain is in this painting is drastically different from the first painting, for if one was to take into account the mountain with the rock on its peak in the background, one would more or less realize that this location is of that of the first painting. Man has not only dominated the land but the seas as well, as indicated by the ships on the water.

He has also built impressive structures to not only give him shelter but to show his power and the milestones that he has achieved, starting from the ordinary settlement and the simple temple structures from the first and second paintings. The character in vibrant red having a procession on a manmade bridge over the water can be interpreted as his triumphant celebration in dominating the natural. He has also learned to protect himself with the use of the said structures by building the gates in which the ships pass through.

The man in vibrant red in the foreground stands out; he can be seen as the man with the most power in the empire or the representative of civilization itself. Man has learned to not only stay in groups but to elect a leader to care for them and guide them to the right direction, creating a complex bureaucratic system. As compared to the hunter in skins in the first painting, the man in royal red is not hunting for the sake of his survival but is rejoicing and is living a life in comfort.

The atmosphere that is elicited from this piece is one of busyness, as if man has forgotten his priority: his struggles against natural forces, his fight for survival. The motion in the painting leads up to the statue in the right background. The statue can be interpreted as a tribute to the Emperor or the god that they worship. The mere fact that the statue is in the image of man suggests that not only does man “worship” himself by recognizing his superiority over external forces, but also that man indeed dominated and is at the peak of his power with the world at his feet.

The title of the piece suggests that man is currently enjoying the fruits of his labor that was made through countless years and generations. The Course of Empire: Destruction The fourth painting shows the destruction of the powerful empire in the hands of invaders. Women are raped, citizens are fleeing and the infrastructures are burned to the ground. The use of color for the sky indicates twilight; the artist ingeniously incorporated the hues of ash from the black smoke that arises from the burning temple, contributing to the bleak and hopeless feel of the piece.

The burning of the infrastructures can also represent the attempts of a foreign civilization to consume the present one. Red and black dominates the painting; red mostly indicates passion yet in this piece, it represents violence and chaos. Dark and light colors clashes together; one can interpret it as man’s knowledge and foresight yet at the same time there is the presence of uncertainty and confusion. The upper left side of the painting is reminiscent of the first painting which indicates gloom, the dark colors swallowing the bright sky to the left.

The man made bridge where the procession was taking place in the earlier painting is now destroyed, with the waves crashing against it, nature threatening to swallow the man made structure. The ships, which indicated the dominion of man over sea is also sunk by the enemy. The statue to the left side is headless; it bears a shield which indicates that it was a statue of a warrior. His posture is strikingly similar to the posture of the hunter in the first painting while he was hunting for his prey.

The light hues that were used for the statue contrast perfectly with the dark, smoky background of the fire, providing a semblance to the first painting. The statue being painted in white suggests a reminder of simple truths that have been lost; the direction in which he seems to head off to without his head suggest uncertainty, giving him no choice but to move forward. The headless statue can represent man’s fall since the knowledge which gave him power is made useless in the end. Thomas Cole shows the irony in this piece: in the beginning, man’s purpose was to survive; he had a simple life and wanted nothing more than what was enough.

Man struggled against nature and banded together to subdue it yet in the end, their ultimate downfall came from themselves. In terms of movement, the posture of the statue flows to the turbulent sky; it circles down to the scenes of destruction and violence in the foreground as the focal point. The scenes show the humans that have forgotten from whence they came and failed to appreciate the power and knowledge that they have discovered; letting greed and misplaced fear for the survival of their own civilization overtake them.

The scene is also filled with people who are struggling, the weak, wooden bridge where they were crossing threatening to give way to death. The scenes are played in the foreground and background simultaneously also creates a chaotic feel to the piece. The Course of Empire: Desolation The last painting, “Desolation”, pictures the moon rising over the ruins, indicating that early evening has arrived. The use of light on the ruins suggests the last rays of the sun, its last goodbye to the works of man.

Ruins of the grand infrastructures fill the still river and no humans are to be seen. The still river can be taken as nature being calm and at peace due to the absence of humans. The loss of humans symbolizes man’s inevitable defeat; succeeding in surviving in earlier times, man has lost sight of what was truly important thus they began to destroy each other, ultimately failing their basic mission which was to survive for the future. Nature, which they attempted and almost succeeded in subduing, has outlasted them and is slowly erasing the evidence of their existence.

The use of blues suggest sadness and desolation yet peace is inspired by the still waters and the reflected moon; ruins of what once was a great civilization is being claimed by nature yet again, the rocks that were once shaped to fit man’s designs returning to their original shape. Shadows were once again used to indicate mystery to the pillars that remain standing; it can be interpreted that this great civilization that once stood at the peak, is forgotten and remembered by no one. The painting moves from the lone pillar to the moon and ultimately the mountain with a rock on its peak.

The mountain, with its distance and unchanging facade, can symbolize the rest of the world natural world; never changing and quietly awaiting the time when it can heal from mankind’s abuse once again. The mountain also suggests continuity and time immemorial, keeping watch over man and his ways all through out the ages. The rock perched on top of the mountain can indicate the fragility of living things and balance that keeps place in check. Thomas Cole’s use of the phases of the day suggests the stages of the “Empire” which can be taken as civilizations or the era of mankind.

The dawn symbolizes the “dawn of a new era”; morning is peaceful and quiet, the perfect start for the day. Noon is where the sun is at its peak and where most of the work is done while twilight is the foreshadowing of the coming night. Night indicates the end of the day, the end of man. In terms of civilization, after the night, another dawn will definitely come another day for another civilization will arise, only to be consumed by another in an endless, brutal cycle until the end, which is total annihilation, comes.

Civilization usually starts in undiscovered, treacherous locations; people build settlements and live together to increase their chances of survival through hunting and gathering. Once survival is no longer an issue, they begin to domesticate animals, respect nature and make a livelihood out of it. Once they prosper, they start to build a larger settlement which warrants a leader, a bureaucratic system, and its own culture and eventually evolves from a city to a kingdom.

Once they become powerful, another powerful civilization comes along and destroys them, fearing for their own survival. The cycle will only come to an end once all humans are destroyed by their own doing. In forgetting our roots, our basic mission, and being blinded by our own knowledge and supposed supremacy, humans tend to turn against each other in fear for their own survival, contributing to the destruction of their age when they should be aiding one another in surviving, as what their forefathers did in order to cope in the savage lands.

It is ironic that man, who once helped his fellow man to survive the harsh conditions, achieved peace and power, would resort to destroying his fellow man for the sake of his own survival. Man has great potential for either creation or destruction yet he is susceptible to greed; if he fails to realize this truth, then mankind is doomed to be destroyed and forgotten. And unlike us, nature quietly lives on without a thought and is never changing. Works Cited National Gallery of Art. Date 2009. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. April 27, 2009 [http://www. nga. gov].


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