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In the late 1820s a young Thomas Cole quickly built a successful career as a painter of Hudson River landscapes, but he what he really wanted was to paint landscapes that had a greater purpose. By 1827 he started thinking about a cycle of paintings that would show the rise and fall of a civilization, and a few years later he began to make sketches and develop his ideas. But he had to find someone who would be willing to pay for the cycle, since it would take him years to paint them. He tried to persuade Baltimore collector Robert Gilmor to commission the series, but Gilmor wasn’t interested. Finally in 1833 the New York merchant Luman Reed commissioned Cole to paint a cycle of five paintings for the art gallery in his new home on Greenwich Street. In this series, Cole painted a cyclical view of history: we see a civilization appear, grow to maturity and then collapse. Cole’s vision was pretty pessimistic compared to his fellow Americans. At this time most people thought that the United States was an exception to Cole’s view of history, and that it wasn’t like the civilization he had painted—it would never fall. Most people would have thought of books like Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which influenced Cole’s thinking. He also drew from Byron’s epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The first time Cole exhibited the paintings he used a quote from the poem: “First freedom, then glory; when that fails, wealth, vice, corruption.” When it came to choosing a title for the series, he was inspired by the first line of Bishop George Berkeley’s 1729 poem, “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America” which begins, “Westward the Course of Empire takes its way.” Sadly, Luman Reed didn’t live to see the finished series. He died after a sudden illness in June of 1836, but his family encouraged Cole to complete the paintings. Reed’s collection became the core of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, and the entire collection was donated to the New-York Historical Society in 1858.

In the late 1820s a young Thomas Cole quickly built a successful career as a painter of Hudson River landscapes, but he what he really wanted was to paint landscapes that had a greater purpose.

Creative: Tronvig Group