The Course of Empire: Desolation, created by Thomas Cole in 1836, is part of a series of five paintings showcasing the progression of human civilization from wilderness to decay. Cole was inspired by Bishop George Berkeley’s works, as well as paintings he saw while traveling in Europe. The series reflects the popular American sentiment of the time, where pastoralism was seen as an ideal while empire was perceived to lead to gluttony and decay.
The painting presents a stadialist interpretation of the liberal theory of history, depicting a conflict between liberty and power. It highlights a ruined city amidst a desolate landscape, symbolic of the fall of empire. Cole was a Romantic artist who believed in primitivism and preferred images of morning hours over evening. The Course of Empire series is considered significant in American art history.
The artwork is an oil on canvas, measuring 39 1/4 x 63 inches. Through his use of symbolism and striking visuals, Cole portrays a powerful message about the rise and fall of empires and the dangers of unchecked power. The painting reveals a somber feeling and a sense of despair, invoking a powerful emotional response from the viewer. Overall, The Course of Empire: Desolation is a masterpiece that continues to inspire and captivate viewers to this day.