Starting in 1833 Thomas Cole spent 3 years creating The Course of Empire — a series of five paintings describing the arc of human culture from ‘savage wilderness’ through high civilization and it’s inevitable destruction. The 1830’s were an optimistic time in America. The Erie canal had been completed, and the ‘Tom Thumb’, the first US locomotive was making its first trips — the first hints of industrialization.
Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire was a warning against the pride of empire building, and showcased the dreamy idealization of the pastoral life. In newspaper advertisements for his series, Cole quoted Canto IV of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
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...