The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR, opened in November 2011, but I couldn’t get up to see it from El Dorado until I went to the Ozarks on a camping trip at the end of July 2012. Although the museum’s signature paintings include Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits, Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, and Thomas Eakins’ Professor Benjamin Howard Rand, the other artworks in the permanent collection were equally impressive.
I had made a point to visit between May 5 and September 3 because of the special exhibit organized by the New York Historical Society, The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision. I knew that several paintings by one of my favorite artists, Thomas Cole, would be there, but I never dreamed that I would see The Course of Empire (1836). I was stunned and excited when I came to the final room of the exhibit. There they were: all five of the huge paintings in chronological order lining one wall of the long room – the room’s other walls were appropriately bare. It was an incredible climax to a splendid exhibit.
Cole imagined a grand landscape that included a harbor and a mountain peak and used it from different angles and perspectives in each painting. The first in the series is The Savage State: Nature dominates, and a hunter and canoeist share the wilderness. The second is The Pastoral State: Nature is being tamed; there’s a permanent temple; there’s farming and shepherding; and there’s leisure time with dancing, painting, and thinking. Next is Consummation: Nature is gone; the peak is barely visible; the harbor is full of commerce; a Greco-Roman city dominates the landscape with thousands of people overcrowding the streets. The fourth is Destruction: Nature returns in the forms of barbarians who rape and pillage the once mighty city and a storm that wrecks havoc in the harbor. Finally, there is Desolation: No humans exist; nature is triumphant and reclaims the landscape; the moon casts its reflection over a tranquil harbor; there’s a face in the moon, and he is smiling.
Doing post-graduate work in the mid-seventies, I spent many hours and days in various libraries at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville searching books and magazines for reprints of Cole’s The Course of Empire series. As I found each one, I took photos of them with the old Kodachrome slide film to use in my history classes. Today, of course, you can instantly find them on Google Images. It seems hardly fair.
The first time I used them was in my 12th grade humanities class at the American School of Quito, Ecuador. When I projected the first painting onto the screen in front of the classroom, I heard a collective “Wow!” I hadn’t expected how awed and overwhelmed my students would be. I’ve experienced various degrees of that excitement from my students over the years in all my U. S. history and world history classes.
I utilized Cole’s paintings in conjunction with teaching historian Arnold Toynbee’s cyclical concept of the rise and fall of civilizations: 1. Primitive State, 2. Creative Period, 3. Time of Troubles, 4. Universal State, 5. Fall of the State, and 6. Successor State(s). Historically, the life of the various civilizations has averaged about 200 years.
Cole was clearly influenced by Edward Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776). But he was also influenced by what he saw during his visit to Europe. Activities such as the building of ships from ancient Rome to the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries had decimated the forests and natural landscape of much of Europe. Cole feared the same thing would happen in the ever-expanding and ever-developing United States.
It is easy to see why students of the 1970s and 1980s could relate to Cole’s masterpieces and especially Destruction and Desolation. It was a time when we were not only aware of what we were doing to the planet but actually wanted to do something about it: Lake Erie died and the Hudson River caught on fire. It was also the time of the Cold War in which both the United States and the Soviet Union were gambling that neither of us would commit suicide and wipe out the other guy at the same time. Mutually assured destruction was the motive behind the escalation of our nuclear arsenals.
Here in the 21st century, nuclear power surfaced again as a self-inflicted source of potential Armageddon, making Cole’s Destruction and Desolation relevant once again. We are aware that some of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons are unaccounted for. At the same time, our planet is plagued by assorted terrorists who seem to think nothing of committing suicide if it gives them a chance to murder large numbers of innocent people. The earthquake and tsunami that recently brought nuclear tragedy to Japan has also reminded us that we still have no realistic idea as to what to do with the nuclear waste that’s produced by nuclear power plants.
As in Cole’s paintings, nature is rebounding and seemingly reaping revenge for decades of abuse by humans. Ever since the 1860s we’ve increasingly relied on fossil fuels such as oil and coal. The result, of course, has been an unnatural increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a corresponding increase in the earth’s temperature. The repercussions have been the ever-increasing intensities of tornadoes, hurricanes, melting ice caps, earthquakes, floods, droughts, and forest fires.
And I went on a five-day camping trip in what turned out to be the hottest recorded July in the history of the United States up to that time! To get to my traditional swimming hole, I have always driven across a low river to pick up the road that continues on the other side and leads to the informal parking area and hiking trail. This summer, there was no river to cross. I did, however, finally see the rock-bottomed river bed that I had been driving over all those previous years. I’m sure you will understand why I chose to spend several mid-day hours during two of those five days in the climate-controlled comfort of the Crystal Bridges Museum. Seeing Cole’s The Course of Empire was worth the whole trip.
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published August 22, 2012, in the Arkansas Times.