Thomas Cole, 1836, oil on canvas
39 ½ × 63 ½ in
New York Historical Society
The second painting in the Course of the Empire series by Thomas Cole, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, epitomizes the pastoral landscape as a site of prosperity and peace threatened by imperial expansion and gluttony. Cole was famous for his stylistically and thematically romantic approach to the landscape genre, a style that became so popular and widespread that Cole emerged as the founder of an American art movement known as the Hudson River School. Cole and other artistic elites found comfort in the central morality of antiquity, and for this series, Cole channels that morality to create his own personal, fictitious pastoral world enlivened with pictorial references to ancient Greece: plush greens, plowed fields, and soaring mountains. The Arcadian’s human subjects live in harmony with the land: they build boats and temples, herd sheep, work the fields, dance, build fires. There is an ethical and effective give and take between the natural world and mortal one, a balance yet to be overthrown by man’s constant pursuit of expansion and domination. Cole transforms the landscape into a symbol of humanity’s general interaction with nature, and as nature declines, so does the morality of man.
As a landscape painter, Cole utilized The Course of the Empire series to enact a critique of Manifest Destiny, historical development, and civilization as a whole, a particularly pertinent subject given the significance of these concepts to Americans at the time. The series, particularly TheArcadian, emphasizes the transience of humanity’s power in comparison to the enduring, dominant force of the natural world, a dichotomy that serves to emphasize Cole and other artists’ fascination with and idealization of the pre-urban realm of antiquity