The leading painter of the so-called “Hudson River School,” Thomas Cole aspired to create what he called “a higher form of landscape painting,” images of nature that transcended topography to provide meditations on history and God. His aspiration culminated in The Course of Empire (1833–36; New-York Historical Society), a series of five large canvases tracing the dramatic rise and fall of a civilization. After his successful debut of The Course of Empire, Cole enjoyed commissions for works on similar themes. The Past and The Present, commissioned by prominent New Yorker Peter Gerard Stuyvesant, belong to that group. The pendant canvases offer two views of a single site, the first showing a jovial gathering for a medieval joust at midday, the second featuring the same place now abandoned, except for a goat herder, who observes the once-glorious castle in ruins at sunset. Cole, who painted these compositions in his Catskill, New York, studio, refuses to reveal what caused this great decline: for contemporary viewers, the financial crash of 1837 may have provided one possible touchstone.
In this pair of paintings, Thomas Cole tells the story of one setting affected by the passage of time. The Past depicts a courtly jousting contest on a summer day. From the colorful throng of spectators to the travelers on the distant road, the landscape teems with people. In contrast, the same scene in The Present contains only a lonely goatherd tending his flock. Now long abandoned, the castle lies in ivy-covered ruins, and water covers the fairground. Nature reclaims the land that humans overran in The Past.
The father of the Hudson River School, Cole grew up in an industrial area in England and moved to America as a teenager. According to Sarah Burns, he feared democracy and believed in the cyclical rise and fall of empires. Perhaps
these two paintings are an allegorical warning that even America cannot escape this pattern.
Suzannah Luft, Class of 2008
allegory; landscapes; ruins; castles; goats; farmers; mountains; water; rivers; trees
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