a review of the ‘thomas cole: eden to empire’ exhibition

For a while now, I have wanted to experience the works of Thomas Cole in person. Many of his works are permanently exhibited in America, so when I heard that there was going to be a Thomas Cole exhibition at the National Gallery in London – I couldn’t miss it.

Figure 1 – The Course of Empire: The Savage State, 1836

There were many stunning paintings in this exhibition, including works by Constable, Turner and Martin, who all influenced Cole. The inclusion of such works provoked inevitable comparisons between the artists, and I concluded that – and I know it’s controversial – Cole’s paintings are better. This self-taught artist impressed me like no other, and often the only way to form an opinion on artists is by asking: who moves you the most?

Cole’s The Course of Empire series and The Oxbow appear to serve as a warning regarding the rise of industrialisation and the danger it poses to the natural world. As a viewer in 2018, I began to think of what we have actually done to nature and natural resources. I immediately thought of global warming and the plastic problem, and this was very moving.

Figure 2 – The Course of Empire: The Pastoral or Arcadian State, 1834

This exhibition is a small voyage with a powerful ending, but a serene beginning.

The first paintings we see in The Course of Empire series are The Course of Empire: The Savage State and The Course of Empire: The Pastoral or Arcadian State. Both depict a naturally beautiful landscape.

Figure 3 – John Constable’s Hadleigh Castle, ‘The Mouth of the Thames’ – Morning after a Stormy Night, 1829

Cole’s skill in painting the greens and browns of the landscape, the clouds in the sky, and the portrayal of the people, was perhaps developed by viewing Constable’s contrastingly dark and gloomy Hadleigh Castle.

The two paintings which moved me the most were The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire and The Course of Empire: Destruction.

Figure 4 – The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire, 1835-6
Figure 5 – The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1836








Consummation depicts a bright empire at its peak, thought to be Ancient Rome. I was in awe of the minute detail, but what struck me the most was how Cole used white as the most prominent colour. I think the use of white and brighter pastels evoke feelings of positivity and tranquillity, despite this being quite a busy scene. I have personally never seen anything like this before.

In contrast, Destruction is a lot darker but no less moving or detailed – perhaps more. This is accentuated as it is placed immediately after Consummation and you experience a sudden change of emotion.

The detail in Destruction is unbelievable, it is a snapshot of the empire at the pinnacle of disaster. You see fire, smoke, and death. It is a scene of pure devastation brought about by perhaps enemy intruders.

Figure 6 – J. M. W. Turner’s Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, exhibited 1812

Turner’s Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, appears to have influenced the dramatic skies of Destruction. Similarly, the dark blues, greys and whites intertwine and spiral.

Another part of Destruction I observed closely were the intricately painted figures and architecture. This may have been inspired by Belshazzar’s Feast by Martin which also has the same level of intricacy as Consummation and Destruction.

Figure 7 – John Martin’s Belshazzar’s Feast, 1820

The final painting in the series is The Course of Empire: Desolation. This is the scene after Destruction. The landscape appears to have returned in a cycle to those at the start of the series, but the landscape is now ruined and rough. Ruined architecture is the only remnant of the once thriving empire.

Figure 8 – The Course of Empire: Desolation, 1836


 The Oxbow closes this exhibition, and rightly so, as it is considered Cole’s most well-known painting. This painting shows a landscape after a thunderstorm. Here, Cole vertically divides the painting into two: to the left is a dark, wild landscape; and to the right is a brighter landscape and the oxbow itself. The artist is painted amongst the trees at the bottom of this painting – staring back at the viewer intensely. He is perhaps inviting the viewer to make a choice between the preservation of the natural world, or the continued industrialisation of it.

Figure 9 – View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – The Oxbow, 1836

The finale of the exhibition made me ponder Cole’s warning, and the devastation we have already caused to our natural resources and the natural world. Global warming is advancing. Our oceans are full of plastic. The damage is done. So, in my opinion, this exhibition leaves you with feelings of sadness and asking yourself, ‘what can we do to help our world now?’

If you have not been to see this exhibition yet, it is at the National Gallery until the 7th October 2018. At the end of this exhibition, there is a free and very good exhibition, Ed Ruscha: Course of Empire. Why not see that too?


Featured image and figures 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 9 courtesy of the National Gallery Website, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/thomas-cole-eden-to-empire?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIt6PUtPzq3AIVSeh3Ch3cqAwIEAAYASAAEgLNi_D_BwE

Figure 3 courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art Website, https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1669233

Figure 6 courtesy of the Tate Website, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-snow-storm-hannibal-and-his-army-crossing-the-alps-n00490

Figure 7 courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art Website, https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1671627



Written by Eden Parkinson


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