The first image in the series depicted the dawn. Here, in the last painting, is a weak sun. Cole put everything he had learned in Italy into this picture, most tangibly a melancholic sense that human beings and their works are ultimately at the mercy of both their own vanity and the ravages of time. But while he meant his cycle to be a warning to a young country growing in confidence and ambition, many of those who came to view it when first exhibited in New York City in 1836 saw something quite different. For them, the rise and fall of a great classical civilisation represented the probable fates of the European countries from which America had freed itself; America, on the other hand, was a new kind of society in which, so they believed, the catastrophe unfolding over “The Course of Empire” could never happen.
The 19th-century painter with a warning for America
Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire now at the National Gallery in London.