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The Consummation of Empire, by Thomas Cole



Image from The painting is in the collection of The New-York Historical Society.

Date: 1835-1836;

Medium: oil on canvas;

Dimensions: 51.25in by 76in

By the late 1820s, Thomas Cole had begun to develop his reputation as a successful painter of Hudson River Valley landscapes. However, by 1827 he had conceived the idea of developing a series of paintings that would depict the rise and fall of a civilization.  In 1833, Cole secured a commission from New York merchant Luman Reed to paint a cycle of five paintings for an art gallery at his home.  This allowed him to paint The Course of Empire, which presents a cyclical view of history in which a civilization appears, matures and then collapses.  The five paintings create a vivid narrative that illustrates the ever changing relationship between man and nature. The transformation of the natural landscape is a key element to story that Thomas Cole is trying to make.  Cole intended The Consummation of Empire to be the visual climax of the series, which is why he used a larger canvas and spent a considerable amount of time on its composition.  Cole wanted to illustrate a great city at the height of its prosperity.  While Cole was able to successfully create this affluent image, he intended it to be a warning instead of an aspiration.  His initial name for this painting was Luxury because he wanted to show the specific point in a society when “glory”, turned into “greed”, “vice” and “corruption”.  It is also important to note that Cole’s trip to Europe, between 1829 and 1832, greatly influenced this painting, which can be seen in the architectural structure of the buildings.  In the painting, the city is succumbing to the militaristic rule of an emperor-like figure, who is being carried across the bridge on a beautiful day.  Cole projects the image of the common man being pressed into the service of glorifying the ruler. Even nature has been tamed to accommodate him.  This can be seen with the elephant that tows his chariot. The flowers and potted plants that decorate his domain indicate man’s control over nature.  Additionally, the large fountain represents humanity’s manipulation and diminishment of natural elements.  Cole places a statue of Minerva in the background to create the metaphor that wisdom is being ignored.  Additionally, there is a philosopher on the right side of the painting, on the balcony, that is observing the scene with disapproval.  Cole’s signature is engraved on the steps next to the philosopher indicating that he feels the same way as the man.  Many scholars believe that the red-cloaked emperor is a metaphor for Andrew Jackson which would suggest that Cole is sending his audience a cautionary message; which is to be weary of Jackson’s administration.

Vinny Donatacci, Marist ’18


“Explore Thomas Cole.” Explore Thomas Cole | Interactive Tour | The Course of Empire. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.

“Museum Collections.” New-York Historical Society | The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.

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