Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
The joke about Americans is that they love nature almost as much as conquest of nature. This is the first of five posts on a five-painting series by Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, that will address that joke. Thomas Cole famously founded the Hudson River School — named for the painters’ landscapes of the Hudson River Valley. They made large canvasses arranging and detailing the beauty of nature before man. As Locke says, in the beginning the whole world was America. The art is somewhat Romantic and the Hudson School thrived into the late 19th century, past Cole’s early death, because Americans loved it. They do so yet, and except for craft, it’s hard to say how the canvasses are any different to pictures or video of, say, the Grand Canyon. You’d have to argue about taste…
Thomas Cole’s superiority to breathtakingly beautiful pictures of America’s wonders of nature depends on his wisdom. To wit, I’d like to show you how the problem of the sublime plays its part in politics. These paintings tell stories and suggest all sorts of strange possibilities about man’s place in the world that I’ll outline and we can discuss. So what you can get from Thomas Cole that you won’t get from better technology is a guide to reflecting on foundings. This should be part of the education our modern leisure affords us, I think.
I should also say a word, before talking about the painting, about how I came to write about them. Mr. Richard Brookhiser is the man you want educating your young, if they have the spirit to learn American history — to learn about the times and the men who seem responsible for America. All free peoples need a Plutarch when once the artificial becomes second nature, the result of the powers of science doing their work in peace. It takes a moral biographer to remind people of the unity of life, the wholeness of man, to sober people up as much as to inspire them. He is America’s.
He also plays Twitter host to any number of people who talk over historical matters. It’s always a pleasure exchanging views with him and not infrequently a surprisingly insightful thing to do. The other day we were comparing notes on the end of civilization in Europe and, in the order of things, as it must come to America, too. He suggested I take a look at these paintings. They are the history and future history of America.
I invite you to stare at the painting — I’ll be around for discussion in the comments — and you can find high-resolution images of the pictures on Wikipedia, so you can take in the details. But I will first try to guide you.
In the beginning, the world was sublime. Mountains were covered in storm clouds. The vastness of the world and the smallness of man — that is our original situation. The beginning for man is the beginning of our powers of organization, because the world is indifferent to us. There is a small village of tents there, already with the signs of hierarchy about it — a pole in the middle of one of the tents. A dancing celebration seems to be happening, which shows that divinities have already made their way into humanity.
That which corresponds to the storm, so far as human things are considered, is the fire. The smoke brings them together. Fire is the symbol of the power of the arts and sciences, by which human beings install order in chaos. The artifacts we see are housing, clothes, weapons (metal-tipped spears, bows, and arrows), and boats. There are different ways of arranging these objects, but the importance of the perspective is this — men are not concentrated. They are spread high and low, on land and water. An extreme power of motion, comparable only to the clouds, is visible in men. This is our image of freedom.
The beginning of reflection is a different thing than the beginning of organization, you see. The painter is interested in the human situation. Out of the dawning sun comes a man — a hunter. Here is the beginning of purposeful action. Man’s motion is rationality — the bow is the symbol of reason. Aiming and hitting the target. Knowing and acquiring the good. The painting is made at the moment a deer is hit, in flight, midstream, by the arrow. You can find another hunt — a wolf-pack cornering a buck and doe on a cliff, one of the wolves already down. The wholeness of the world already includes the distinction between man and everything else.Published in