Tuesday, March 20, 2018


John Archibald Woodside, a Philadelphia sign painter, 1814

The consensus among reporters, pundits, and intellectuals seems to be that liberal democracy is obsolete, that it cannot compete in whatever new world is emerging that combines the most sophisticated technology with the most primitive of tribal passions. Perhaps hierarchy is the natural order of human life because struggle is the natural order of all life (so right wing intellectuals argue). We submit to “who may” versus “who must” in order to survive, for protection against enemies and misfortune. The autocrat is always ready to ride in on a glamorous white horse and fix everything. We really want to be ruled by heroes who fight for us. We want Big Daddy or Big Mama to protect us, clean up our mess, and make us feel glorious again. The rule of strength delivers results in a way that the rule of law can’t.

Democracy is an ugly business. Thucydides and Plutarch wrote about the Athenian democracy to demonstrate what a failure it was. The founding fathers of the USA read those authors as a warning about democracy’s fatal excesses; the fickleness of public opinion, the opportunities for ambitious demagogues, the tyranny of majorities and their rule. Democracy is a stew of political parties, competing interests, factions, lawyers, committees, parliamentary rules, messy compromises, and solutions where no one is completely happy. The challenge of living in a liberal democracy is willingness to accept people who are not like you at all – who do not look like you or speak like you or believe like you do or whatever – as equals; to recognize that their claim upon this world is every bit as real and authentic as your own. For a lot of people, maybe most people, that is too much. A lot of people, maybe most, feel safest in the company of their own kind, their own tribe. When it comes to choosing between their own tribe and a country that they share with other tribes, a lot of people will choose tribe over country.

And yet, ugly old democracy appears to be the only system in which people can be truly happy. Parties, factions, and interests can compete for power without murdering each other. Every faction has a real chance at governing at some point. The rule of law may deliver up some strange and confounding results, but it protects minorities (created by majorities who single people out for whatever distinction; religion, skin color, sexuality, political views, language, ethnicity, coffee or tea, what shampoo they use, etc.) from over-bearing majorities. Above all, people can decide for themselves how they want to live their lives despite whatever a philosopher king or a majority of the moment thinks is The Right Way To Live. People can choose their friends and travelling companions. They can make up their lives as they see fit. Safety comes not from some Big Daddy, but from the mutual respect and responsibility of neighbors and fellow citizens.

I suppose the arguments now are over what exactly constitutes “mutual respect” and “mutual responsibility.” Where is the line between looking out for neighbor and “minding your own damn business,” between “I’m just living my life” and “you’re putting me and mine at risk?” But those have always been issues in every society that has even a modicum of liberty. This is what law and judicial systems are for, and have always been for. The only real alternative is vendetta and vigilantism which are bad for everyone.

Charles LeBrun, Apotheosis of King Louis XIV, 1677

I think we forget sometimes that we really did have a revolution in the United States, that for much of its early history, the USA was looked upon as an incendiary threat by its very existence. Our imperial ambitions and adventures over the last century and a half dulled that original revolutionary spirit. We forgot what radical ideas sit at the heart of our founding document The Declaration of Independence, ideas that got the document banned in most of the rest of the world for over a century. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” That phrase is so familiar to us Yanks that I can type it out from memory. And yet, I think we forget how shocking all of those ideas in the passage were in 1776 when it was written. Most of the rest of the world in 1776, Protestant and Catholic, Christian and not, would have agreed with these passages (full of Biblical proof texts) from Bishop Jacques Benigne Bossuet’s The Divine Right of Kings:
IT IS GOD who establishes kings. He caused Saul and David to be anointed by Samuel; He vested royalty in the House of David, and ordered him to cause Solomon, his son, to reign in his place… Princes thus act as ministers of God and His lieutenants on earth. It is through them that He rules.... This is why we have seen that the royal throne is not the throne of a man, but the throne of God himself. "Jehovah hath chosen Solomon my son to sit upon the throne of the kingdom of Jehovah over Israel." (I Chronicles 28: 5) And again: "Then Solomon sat on the throne of Jehovah." (Ibid., 29:33) . . . It appears from this that the person of kings is sacred, and to move against them is sacrilege. God causes them to be anointed by the prophets with a sacred unction, as He caused the pontiffs and His altars to be anointed. But even without the external application of this unction, they are sacred in their office, as being the representatives of the divine majesty, sent by His providence for the execution of His designs.... There is something religious in the respect which one renders the prince. Service of God and respect for kings are things united. St. Peter groups these two duties together: "Fear God. Honor the king." (I Peter 2:17)

“Inalienable rights” endowed by God? “Self evident” truths? And most intolerable of all, “governments instituted among men?” “Deriving just powers” from the “consent of the governed?” What madness! What an assault on the Natural Order of things ordained by God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures! “Kings shall be thy nursing fathers…”  Should the Hebrew rabble decide where they will go next, Moses and Joshua be damned? “Crowns are from God, not from legislatures,” said King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia contemptuously when the Frankfurt Parliament offered him the crown of a united Germany. The modern era began when the American Declaration of Independence proclaimed that the basic conditions of life for human beings can be changed, that they are not timeless unchangeable verities from God, that human beings can determine for themselves how they wish to live together without any divine intervention in the form of monarchs and nobility.

As the historian James McPherson pointed out, in 1861 at the start of the American Civil War, the odd man out in the rest of the world was the North, not the South. Most of the rest of the world in 1861 looked like the South ruled by a privileged oligarchy and sustained, if not exactly by slavery, at least by some form of indentured labor. It was the North with its industry, relatively free labor, and its independent farmers that was the exception and regarded by much of the rest of the world as a threat by its very existence. Most of the rulers of Europe eagerly anticipated the destruction of the USA in the Civil War, and stood ready to intervene on the side of the Confederacy. To their dismay, the North prevailed, and not only re-affirmed those ideas in that passage in the Declaration of Independence (“…that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth”), but set the USA -- alone among nations at the time -- on a course toward universal enfranchisement, a course it followed in fits and starts until very recently. Few people at the time of the American Civil War understood the war's radical implications better than a German journalist living in London working for an American newspaper The New York Tribune who campaigned tirelessly to rally British working people to the Union cause -- Karl Marx.

Democracy is not utopia.  It is not an end or a fulfillment of anything.  Utopias mean the end of all conflict and claim to be the end and fulfillment of history.  In order to truly accomplish that, utopian movements and ideologies discover that they have to eliminate variation, that the truest security against conflict is conformity.  Democracy makes no such claim.  It is not an end to history.  Democracy points out that conformity is neither equality, nor freedom.  Unlike utopia, democracy depends on human variety for its life.  History is not ended, just made less dangerous and more bearable.  Democracy can always be improved, but perfection is not in its nature.  Democracy is a modus vivendi negotiated among selfish and frightened human beings.  People who are different from each other, opposite each other, even people who hate each other, agree to somehow live with each other.

Democracy, like youth, is something best appreciated when it is lost.  The people who value liberty the most are people who don't have it and want it.  The United States invented liberal democracy in 1776 and again in 1865.  And now, a substantial part of the American population is tired of it and afraid of what universal enfranchisement means for them; afraid of being lost; and yearns for a strong man to vindicate them. They want freedom for themselves so long as everyone else stays in their chains.  They want some kind of racist state where theirs is the master race that rules over everyone else.  Today, the USA abdicates its role as the leader of liberal democracy, and its leadership role in the world.  The USA is losing the democracy that it fought and worked so hard to create for so many generations.

In many respects, the United States is just one more empire among many, fated to go the way of all the others that ever were.  Like all empires, the USA is a big smash and grab of land and resources together with the enslavement and slaughter of conquered peoples.  And yet, in the midst of that brutal imperium, the USA became the first state in history to embrace the concept of universal enfranchisement if not quite the reality of it.  The USA was the first empire since ancient Rome to successfully incorporate conquered peoples into its project.  Barack Obama, an African American, taking the oath of the Presidency was as momentous an event as a Spanish soldier named Trajan taking the imperial purple and becoming the first non-Roman Emperor of Rome.  The only thing that would be comparable to both would be a Nigerian or a Bengali wearing the British crown.  There were thousands upon thousands of other smaller momentous events throughout our history such as an escaped former slave boy putting on a uniform and becoming a soldier and a citizen.  The very real and tangible promise that only democracy can hold before people is freedom and dignity.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Reflections on Celtic Gospel Books

Cross page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, 8th century

Looking at magnificent Celtic illuminated Gospel books puts me in mind of a couple of things that have become either lost or controversial these days: the primacy of the Gospel in Christian belief and practice; and evangelism.

Another Cross page from the Lindisfarne Gospels

These Gospel books were the single most important objects owned by the Celtic monasteries from Skellig Michael to Lindisfarne across the British Isles. The 4 Gospels are the only books in the Christian Scripture where Christ speaks directly to us. The Celtic monks and their secular charges regarded these recorded words with a special awe and reverence comparable only to the mysterium tremendum that early Muslims attached to the Quran. God Himself in the Second Person of the Trinity speaks directly from the page of each Gospel. The ornamentation lavished on these books speaks to that awe and mystery, but it means something more. The native religion of Ireland speaks through that elaborate decoration. All the spirals and interlaces on those pages began as patterns believed to have magical powers of protection. Warriors would wear interlace into battle believing it made them invincible. Kings and chieftains wore the pattern as visible signs of their magical and spiritual powers. So, it was only appropriate in the eyes of Ireland’s monks that the Gospel be so vested in power and glory.

Cross page from the Book of Kells, 9th century

Detail from the Cross page of the Book of Kells

The opening of the Gospel of Mark from the Book of Kells

Detail from the opening page of the Gospel of Mark in the Book of Kells

In historic Christian liturgy, the Gospel book stands alone. It is not just 4 chapters in a single book called The Bible. These 4 Books are singled out from the rest. The Gospel book is carried in procession and wreathed in incense. Its words are sung rather than spoken during the Mass. The Gospel is read as the culmination of the Liturgy of the Word that begins the Mass, a descendant of the Synagogue service where the Torah is read in a cycle over a year’s time. So, the Gospel comes at the end of a sequence of 3 Scriptural readings and the singing of a Psalm as the climax of that first part of the Mass.

A Gospel procession in an Episcopal church

With the invention of the printing press and Bibles in hotel rooms everywhere, the Gospels became embedded in the Book and their primacy got lost. Christians are supposed to read the rest of the Bible through the lens of the Gospels. These days, the Gospels get read through a lot of other lenses, especially through those of apocalyptic books such as Revelations and Daniel. And so, we get that mishegoss of Manicheanism, Prosperity gospel, sales and managerial motivational speak, religious nationalism, self-help literature, and Dispensationalism that is American Christianity. Maybe through all the praise bands, the mega-churches with their jumbotrons, the celebrity preachers, the mighty evangelical empires, vast properties, political influence, and money of American Christianity, we can glimpse the Irish monks in their cold windswept monasteries teeming with chickens and noisy livestock on moors and rocky coasts and see that they had their priorities right all along. The Gospel Book comes first. Everything else plays a supporting role.

I don’t like missionaries and I view arguments over effective evangelization with great suspicion. Since the 16th century, missionaries followed (or preceded) conquering armies as agents of imperialism. No matter how much glory and splendor empires cloak themselves with, no matter all the rhetoric of divine mandates and national missions to bring peace, prosperity, and civilization to the world, all empires from the Hittites to the Romans to the British to the Americans are ultimately smash and grabs. One powerful state smashes into smaller states, grabs their resources and territory, and reduces the natives to cheap labor and tenants in their own homes. The empires of the modern era were especially thorough in their destruction in a way that ancient empires usually were not. Part of this was a post Reformation/Counter-Reformation insistence on doctrinal exactitude that did not brook much variation. Another part was that the men who led these invasions were mostly looters and pillagers who couldn’t care less about the physical or spiritual welfare of their conquests. They were out to squeeze the maximum amount of profit for the least cost out of their newly captured lands and populations. Between this unholy alliance of profiteering and fanaticism, native religions and cultures in the Americas, Africa, and Asia got bulldozed into extinction.

I may get into trouble for this, but I would argue that this was not always the case. Certainly, there was the Roman Emperor Theodosius who made Christianity the state cult of the Roman Empire and ordered all of the old temples closed and ended the Olympic Games. That certainly was a major departure from the traditional religious tolerance of the Roman Empire, even under previous Christian emperors. And yet, while the old temples were closed, they were not destroyed. Destruction came when vacant temples became a ready source of building material and they were used as quarries for generations. By contrast, the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan was leveled to the ground when the city became Mexico City in the 16th century. There was no effective deliberate campaign to destroy ancient literature in the West. Throughout the Middle Ages to the present day, devout monks read the works of Virgil and Livy, and even the very personal and erotic poetry of Catullus. In the late 17th century, Catholic conquerors destroyed the remaining volumes of Mayan literature during the conquest of the Yucatan.

Saint Patrick used the native religion of the Irish to preach the Gospel. He preached it to them in terms of their own experience and in their own language.  It is significant too that he did not arrive with any army, nor did any invading armies follow him until much later in Irish history.  Much of the native Irish religion was baptized into the new faith rather than eliminated. The same is true of the Classical civilization of ancient Rome. Apollo was never really driven out of his place in human imagination. He was simply given a set of clothes and assigned a new role, as an actor who played the part of Christ in so much early Christian art. Venus’ son cupid kept his wings and his bow and received a new name, “cherub” after the spiritual beings in Levantine religions. The open syncretism of so much early Christian art (Christ/Apollo sits enthroned in heaven between Peter and Paul and rests his feet on a Classical sky god; Cupids/Cherubim cavort among the grape vines of Christ/Bacchus) still shocks doctrinal purists. We see something similar in the Irish Gospel books and high crosses. Christianity survived the catastrophes of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the Irish monasteries because of their remoteness. Not only did they preserve the Christian faith, but the literacy that Christian worship requires. For 2 centuries, the only books being read or made anywhere in Europe north of the Alps were all in Irish monasteries. In time, Christianity and literacy would return gradually to Europe through the missionary efforts of Irish monks.

And what of our own time? What does it mean to evangelize today? Many times, I see subway preachers banging on about things that many in their captive audience find incomprehensible. Christianity is no longer a cultural lingua franca in the modern world. Its stories and symbols are now unknown and unfamiliar to a lot of people, and no longer useful as points of cultural and historical reference. What is more, in an age of profiteering that rewards predation, the subway missionary is just one more person who wants something out of passersby whether it’s their money or their souls. The preacher becomes one more enforcer of a social and cultural order the profits someone else. In Karl Marx’s memorable turn of phrase, the priest becomes the landlord’s best friend.

A subway preacher in New York

So, what do we want from people when we get all excited for the Gospel in yet another evangelization drive? What do we mean by “winning souls for Christ?” If we are talking about conquering people, then maybe we should just quit while we are ahead. The modern world of market capitalism is all about aggression and conquest already. And what are we offering people? Do we really believe in our heart of hearts in the old fundamentalist “turn or burn?” As far as I’m concerned, that’s more a pitch for extortion than salvation. Whatever else God does, He does not run a racket. Do we really want people to join up because they are terrified? The old fundamentalist “turn or burn” has the advantage of stark clarity, though an awful lot of fatal defects (as in what happens to people’s faith when they lose their fear?). So much of what Christianity proclaims many people find to be incomprehensible madness these days; virgin birth, resurrection from the dead, creation out of nothing, angels, devils, a very temperamental and fickle deity from ancient literature, etc. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked us to consider in some of his last letters, how necessary is the supernatural to the Christian faith? And finally, is there a compelling reason to be Christian? That is not a rhetorical question. I don’t have an answer.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

"Furious Clear-Eyed Teenagers"

"Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage.  Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are"  -- Saint Augustine

Marjory Stoneman Douglas would be so proud of these kids.

The title of this post comes from this essay in the NYTimes.

Friday, March 2, 2018

On the Passing of Billy Graham

As the USA buries Billy Graham with state honors, and as he leaves behind an estate worth millions, I remember John Wesley who died in poverty today March 2, 1791 at the age of 81.  Wesley not only died in poverty, but lived in poverty most of his life, spending his money and possessions lavishly to help people in need.

The celebrity preachers that Billy Graham helped spawn live out the epigram "God helps those who help themselves," a phrase that so many people -- including my mother -- are convinced is in the Bible (it's not).  These rich and famous preachers who are accustomed to having the attention of the powerful certainly have "helped themselves" throughout their careers.  We can only hope that God helps them.

Wesley lived out the self-sacrificial demand that Christ made of the rich young man, to sell all that we have, give the money to the poor, take up our cross, and follow Him.  That's a demand that most of us mortals can't meet, and none of us can meet perfectly.   But Wesley tried, not to save his soul or to win glory, but that the Good News of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ be made real and spread.

Turner Makes a Surprise Visit to the Metropolitan Museum

The small show of Thomas Cole's work in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum came with two big bonuses, a pair of major paintings by Soapsuds and Whitewash himself, JMW Turner.

All of these photos are mine unless otherwise noted.  They are freely available, especially to educators.

The first painting was Hannibal Crossing the Alps from the Tate Gallery.

According to legend, Turner made a visit to the home of his friend Walter Fawkes in Yorkshire in 1810.  While riding in a carriage with Fawkes' young son Hawkesworth, Turner sketched on the back of a letter a snowstorm they watched as it passed through the Yorkshire countryside.  "There Hawky!" he supposedly said, "In two years you will see this snowstorm again and you will call it Hannibal Crossing the Alps!"
Just as likely a source of inspiration was Jacques Louis David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps that Turner saw in Paris in 1802.  Turner made the unusual decision to compare Napoleon to Hannibal crossing over the Maritime Alps, through mountains and hostile natives to invade Italy by land.  Turner eagerly took on a challenge from a major French NeoClassical painter.

I'm a little reluctant to completely dismiss the story of Turner and young Hawky watching a snowstorm in Yorkshire for the simple reason that a massive snowstorm and avalanche takes up far and away the bulk of this painting.  Hannibal and his whole army are reduced to tiny ciphers in this picture.

The big dramatic centerpiece of this picture is not Hannibal but this great Cyclopean eye of the sun veiled by the oncoming storm.  A great descending curl of falling snow comes down to the left setting up a most un-Classical and very modern (and even abstract) composition of a vortex and diagonals as a kind of visual metaphor for natural power that Turner would use again and again in his later work.  This was his first use of it.

Like so much of Turner's work, this painting doesn't reproduce well.  Seeing it in real life was a revelation; it's a lot less of a chaos of light and dark paint as it appears in reproduction.

The actual figurative parts of the painting -- which in the work of a Classicist like David would have been front and center with landscape playing a supporting role -- are small and reduced to insignificance in the face of the mighty storm following Hannibal's army over the mountain pass.
In the foreground, Salassian tribesmen attack stragglers in the Carthaginian army as described by Livy and Polybius.

A diminished Hannibal and his elephant ride over the pass; a major figure in ancient history reduced to a tiny silhouette.

The storm moves from right to left and obliterates the radiant light of the mountain valley below.  In person, this glowing mountain valley is much clearer than in reproduction.   You can see the valley, a lake, cliffs, peaks, and glaciers in the mountains as well as the blue sky behind.

The storm is so dark that the army marches by torchlight here.

The storm races down the pass followed by an avalanche of snow.  The real subject of the painting is the forces of nature; natural power, a lifelong obsession of Turner that in his view reduced all human activity to futility.  There always comes a point in Turner's work where the careful studies from nature get left behind and his imagination takes over.  I've seen a few storms in mountains in my time, and I've never seen anything that looks like this.  But who cares, what a drama Turner presents to us here!


The second painting was one of my favorite of all 19th century paintings, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus on loan from the National Gallery in London.  I was a little surprised that the Brits let this travel.  This one of their National Paintings up there with Constable's The Haywain.

I've always loved this painting from 1829.  I saw it once before in London many years ago, and it was a delightful surprise to see it again here in New York.  It shows a scene from Homer's Odyssey where Ulysses having just escaped Polyphemus the Cyclops by blinding him while he slept, mocks the raging giant while escaping with his men in his ship at dawn.

Ulysses mocks the blind Cyclops from the mast of his ship.

The blind giant high on a cloudy mountain prepares to hurl boulders in futility and calling down Neptune's curse on Ulysses and his men.

That Turner makes Polyphemus into a giant part of a cloudy mountain is a real stroke of imagination.

This painting features one of the most spectacular sunrises from a century full of spectacular painted sunrises and sunsets.

Details in Turner's paintings are hard to make out reproduction, but appear quite clearly in the original, such as a wake of glowing sea deities and fish guiding the ship through the "wine dark" sea.

I presume the cave glowing with firelight is an entrance to Polyphemus' lair that Ulysses and his men just escaped.

Colors make very beautiful and poetic transitions from warm to cool throughout this painting.

Another detail that is hard to see in reproduction but quite clear in the original is a range of high mountains off on the left side of the painting.

While looking at this painting, I overheard a young man explain that Polyphemus' blindness and Ulysses' mockery shape the whole painting.  I thought that was a brilliant insight (though I have no idea if it's original with him, but credit where credit is due).  Light and blindness appear in other works by Turner, for example in his painting of Regulus.  A radiant gold and rose colored fog fills the painting obscuring the overall contours of the landscape making them hard to make out, though they are there.  We barely see Polyphemus in the haze (he's the least clear thing in the whole picture).  The radiant sunrise that proclaims the triumph of Ulysses escape mocks the giant's blindness.

This is Turner's very personal and visionary re-imagining of an ancient story.  He takes on earlier Classical history painting and Claude Lorrain at the same time that he creates something so very personal out of a central narrative of Western culture; a very modern thing to do.

Thomas Cole's Oxbow

Here are some photos I took in 2015 of another major painting by Thomas Cole featured in the small show of his work in the Metropolitan Museum, The Oxbow, or more properly known by its official title View from Mount Holyoke, Northhampton, Massachusetts after a Thunderstrom, the Oxbow painted in 1836.

These are all my photos unless otherwise noted and are freely available, especially to educators.

This painting normally sits prominently displayed in a gallery of the first generation Hudson River School painters in the Museum

Thomas Cole painted a deeply Romantic painting of a particular place seen not literally but through memory and imagination.  As in The Course of Empire, the painting beautifully expresses Cole's ambivalent feelings about the development of the North American wilderness.  Cole was not a tree-hugger.  He was all for development.  But, he felt that the way the wilderness was being cleared was rapacious.  Far from prelapsarian visions of yeomen farmers cutting down the trees and clearing the brush to make room for farming, timber companies, railroads, and commercial farming clearcut whole forests at a time.  On another deeper level, Cole felt deeply the loss of primordial wilderness was indeed a loss, and that comes through in this painting.

A mighty storm damaged oak in the foreground seems to sweep aside the thunderstorm to reveal a sunlit valley of new settlement; like Donner clearing away the storm clouds to reveal the newly built Valhalla in the sunlight in the last scene of Das Rheingold.

The storm, still raging, passes off into the wilderness on the left.  The wilderness in this painting is powerful and frightening.

The storm was incredibly powerful.  Much of the damage on the oak tree is new.  Cole shows the tree dying with sparse greenery, peeling bark, and shelf fungus growing out of the trunk.  Perhaps a sad image of an ancient primordial wilderness in its last stages of life.

The storm clears to reveal settled activity int he valley below.  New farms organize the wild forest chaos into a grid of fields.

A beautiful dramatic sky perhaps recalling the works of Turner that Cole saw more than 10 years earlier.

At first it seems the storm forced an artist to abandon his work painting sketches onsite.

The artist turns up again hard at work on a sketch from life behind the rocks.

Despite the intrepid artist braving a powerful storm to finish his work in this painting, Cole may never have visited this spot.  He traced an engraving of this view made by a British artist Basil Hall from an 1828 book of prints he made of scenic places in the still new USA.  Hall reproached American artists for not taking nearly enough interest in the landscape of their own country.   In 1836, depressed and exhausted from his work on The Course of Empire, Thomas Cole decided to take up Hall's challenge and make this large painting to announce the arrival of a distinctly American form of landscape painting.  Taking inspiration from Turner (and more subtly from Constable), Cole makes landscape into a vehicle for larger moral and historical reflection, not simply as escapist scenery.

Thomas Cole's Course of Empire at the Metropolitan Museum

Toward the end of a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I stumbled upon something that I haven't seen in about 20 years, Thomas Cole's cycle of paintings The Course of Empire.  They were part of small show of his work commemorating the 200th anniversary of Cole's arrival in the United States.  The last time I saw them was in their permanent home, the New York Historical Society sometime back in the early 1990s.  The series was always down or on loan when I made subsequent trips to the Society to see them.  It was such a pleasure to finally see these paintings again in the original after such a long time.

The prominent New York merchant, art collector, and philanthropist Luman Reed commissioned the series for his townhouse on Greenwich Street in what is now downtown Manhattan.  Cole worked on the series from 1833 to 1836.  It is a grand painted reflection on the subject of the rise and decline of civilizations, something very much on the minds of wealthy merchants at the time of rising Jacksonian populism.  More directly, these paintings are meditations on American history and how it is to be understood.  A passage from Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage serves as both an inspiration and an epigram for the series:
First freedom then Glory -- when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption ...
All of these are my photographs unless otherwise noted.  They are freely available especially to educators.

All of the paintings in this series show the same place at different periods of time.  The clue is the odd rocky hill with a boulder on top that appears in all of the paintings, though from slightly different points of view in each.

The Savage State

Photo from Wikipedia

The sun rises on a stormy morning in a wilderness landscape inhabited by "savages" with some clear references to the native Americans.

The Pastoral State

Photo from Wikipedia

The Pastoral State shows the same landscape at the beginnings of settled agrarian life.

A smoking ring of dolmens very much like Stonehenge indicating a primordial sacrificial religion.

Building a boat on the shore.

The same rocky hill with a boulder.

The Pastoral State is a kind of Arcadia as imagined by early American intellectuals, a kind of prelapsarian Eden of honest toil, solid morals, and innocence.  Luman Reed and Cole himself probably imagined the early history of the United States as something like this.  Thomas Jefferson himself envisioned the USA to be an agrarian republic of independent farmers.

Consummation of Empire

Photo from Wikipedia

This painting was the centerpiece of the series and is larger than the other paintings.  We are still in the same place.  You can see the rocky hill with the boulder on the far right.  This is a painting filled with mixed feelings.  The city is at the height of its imperial splendor, and it is splendid.  But there's an element of the grotesquely out of scale and over extravagant about the whole thing.

Some scholars identify this emperor in an oversize chariot drawn by an elephant as a reference to Andrew Jackson; seen as a demagogue raised up by the passions of the mob.  Educated merchants like Luman Reed felt very threatened by the idea of direct democracy championed by Jackson.  They preferred an oligarchy of the well heeled and well educated.  Reed's views were hardly unique and were shared by a number of prominent businessmen and intellectuals of the day.  It should be noted that Andrew Jackson's idea of democracy was certainly not liberal democracy.  He had no interest in any kind of universal franchise.  Jackson's was a democracy of white men and no more.  His genocidal policies toward native Americans were very much about establishing white supremacy.

There is a lot of architecture in this painting, all of it original and some of it very fine.  Cole worked from time to time as an architect.  The large Doric Greek temple facade here reminds us that Cole entered a competition to design the Ohio Statehouse and was awarded third prize.  Alexander Jackson Davis built the present Ohio capitol using much of Cole's design.

The empress looks bored with the whole spectacle.

These are paintings made for the print market.  Engraved copies of Thomas Cole's work were very popular and in high demand.  Paintings like this are full of anecdotal details that I think Cole loved to paint and still delight viewers.

The details in this painting are extraordinary and imaginative.

And here is our rocky hill with the boulder.


Photo from Wikipedia

Violence devastates the once majestic city.  Whether this is foreign invasion or domestic uprising or both is not clear.  The corrupt extravagance of the imperial city crumbles into chaos.  The bridge over which passed the emperor in his triumphal procession now collapses under the weight of furious combatants.  A colossus based on the Borghese Warrior dominates the right side, its head lying broken in the foreground.  The surrounding sky swirls with an approaching storm, as furious as the combat below.

I can certainly see Turner's influence here.  Cole traveled to England to see his work and met Turner.  Cole was shocked by his coarse cockney manners.

A colossal version of the once famous Borghese Warrior in the Louvre.


Photo from Wikipedia

And in the end, everything returns to wilderness. This is the only panel where humans are absent.  A pale and lonely moon shines over a wilderness landscape where the empire and its inhabitants are all no more.

Thomas Cole's The Course of Empire is about a particular understanding of American history, one that still has currency though much altered over time.  The idea of an America corrupted by empire and ambition is still very much alive.  These paintings are an implicit criticism of unchecked democracy, the democracy championed by Andrew Jackson that amounted to a kind of majoritarian dictatorship that devastated racial and ethnic minorities in the USA.  As Thucydides' account of the fall of Athens reminds us, democracies can sometimes be among the most aggressive of empires.

These paintings are also about an issue long at the heart of all of Thomas Cole's work; his very ambivalent feelings about the development of the American wilderness.  In general, Cole supported settlement and development of the wilds.  He was not a tree-hugger.  On the other hand, the rapacious ways of clearing so much wilderness used by timber companies, railroads, mines, and independent farmers themselves gave him pause.  Who ultimately is responsible for the creation and development of the infrastructure of settlement and commerce (roads, canals, railroads, etc)?  Should it be entirely on the initiative of individual land owners as Jefferson and Jackson and his supporters contended, or should this be a public effort led and funded by the federal government as Hamilton argued?  Though it would appear that this issue was settled in the New Deal (from rural electrification to the Interstate Highway system, a big New Deal project long after the New Deal ended), there are still many who oppose public financing of infrastructure development.  Cole's sympathies appear to be with Jefferson, though the magnificent spectacle in the panel Consummation indicates once again, his mixed feelings.

The small show went to great lengths to show Cole's ties to the Romantic movement in Europe and his own influence on later American art.  In his paintings Cole strikes me as very much a Romantic in the tradition of Turner, Constable, or Friedrich (whose work I doubt he knew).  Cole also belongs to that visionary part of Romanticism that includes Goya, Blake, and Runge.  Like their work, Cole's paintings are attempts to imaginatively engage with modern transformations through a rich imaginative and very personal aesthetic, through a kind of individual myth and fantasy.  Cole in the USA was a very public figure with a deeply personal and private imaginative life (as was Turner in Britain).  He is credited with bringing the Western landscape traditions to the New World and remaking them to suit the experiences of the American continent.  American artists for generations admired and deeply revered Cole and his work.

Thomas Cole photographed in 1846, Photo from Wikipedia