Thomas Cole and Jacksonian America The Course of Empire as Political Allegory
[ Andrew Jackson] found a confederacy--he left an empire. 1
In her discussion of this well-known allegorical series by Thomas Cole, Angela Miller challenges the notion that American landscape painting in the nineteenth century functioned as a transparent (and therefore neutral) symbol of national identity. Based on evidence in the artist's diaries and letters, Miller characterizes Cole as an anti-democratic conservative with strongly held political convictions that are manifest in his paintings. The Course of Empire is thus understood in terms of the shifting political and social realities of the Jacksonian era, and Cole's personal anxiety about the consequences of America's transformation from an idealistic republic to an empire posing as a populist democracy.
Exemplifying the interdisciplinary focus of recent scholarship on American art, Miller draws on a myriad of sources, from political cartoons to literature, in her reconstruction of the unstable cultural moment that this series embodies. When analyzed in light of the artist's perception of contemporary political events, The Course of Empire emerges as a timely parable foretelling the dangers of reckless expansionism and the triumph in America of raw ambition and crude materialism, all of which Cole and his like-minded peers associated with the presidency of Andrew Jackson.
Thomas Cole ( 1801-48) is best known for his role in placing the landscape genre in America on a secure artistic and intellectual foundation. Associating the beginnings of landscape art with the concurrent appearance of popular democracy, scholars have generally assumed that Cole shared the cultural and nationalistic premises of the native landscape school that developed under this influence. Other inaccurate assessments have followed, in particular the belief that Cole's political sympathies were democratic. 2 To take this for granted, however, is to overlook not only the anti-Jacksonian sentiment that Cole occasionally vented in his journals and letters, but also the veiled political and topical content of his well-known cycle, The Course of Empire. This neglect of the political content of Cole's art is part of a broader tendency to approach American landscape art as a genre lacking social or political content, as a transparent reflection of nature's central role in national culture. 3 The reappraisal of such assumptions begins with Cole, whose ideological challenge to the next generation of painters was made in the language