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View From Sunset Rock

In 1833, the landscape painter Thomas Cole, recently returned to the United States from an invigorating trip to Europe, proposed to his patron, Lumen Reed, an ambitious series of paintings “wherein we see how nations have risen from the Savage state to that of Power & Glory & then fallen & become extinct.”

How could Reed say no? He didn’t, offering his support, and over the next three years, Cole worked on five large canvases that came to be called The Course of Empire. Composed at the time the white man began to shape a nation, they were shown in 1836 and acknowledged as masterpieces; and after Cole’s death in 1848, the novelist James Fenimore Cooper wrote that they were “the work of the highest genius this country has ever produced.”

I smirk at the audacity of the project, the hubris of a man (of course it’s a man, a white man), but that’s unfair, even dishonest, a way to brush off how moving the series was to me when I first saw it displayed at the Peabody-Essex museum in my hometown of Salem, Massachusetts, a city that has done its own share of rising and falling.

The five paintings are of the same imagined landscape: a bay and the surrounding lands, with a gentle mountain bordering one arm of the bay. They are set over the course of a few centuries, and they trace the rise and fall of a presumably ancient civilization, from The Savage State, populated by a few hunting indigenous people, through The Pastoral State, to the glory and ostentatiousness of The Consummation of Empire, then to Destruction, a scene of war, and finally to Desolation, a peaceful, unpeopled landscape of mossy ruins.

Throughout it all, the shape of the land remains fairly constant. Although the vantage point shifts from painting to painting, in each we can see the bay, and in each we see the mountain that stretches into the ocean. And, in each, at the peak of the mountain’s ridge, a boulder sits, hovering high above the sea. The boulder is there in the beginning, looking down on the indigenous people from the distance, and it is there at the end, surveying the broken marble.

To emphasize the progress of time, Cole sets the five paintings at different times of day, so the indigenous people chase deer in the early morning; The Consummation of Empire occurs in early afternoon, and Desolation is set at dusk. In total, the series embodies a universal truth about the rise and fall of civilizations: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and Despair!” it cries, using as many capital letters as Shelley.

One reason the paintings moved me was that disaster was on my mind when I saw them. Just a few months earlier, an earthquake and subsequent tsunami had destroyed a swath of Japan’s northern coast, and had led to the destruction of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. I watched the YouTube clips of the water sweeping towns away, but I was more horrified by what I couldn’t yet see: the effects of the leaking radioactive materials.

Perhaps, too, the small size of the people in Cole’s landscapes moved me. Even at civilization’s apex in The Consummation of Empire, the individuals were tiny, less significant than that one distant boulder. The perspective reminds me of how, after Hurricane Katrina, no images could capture the extent of the devastation; nothing could be that large and encompassing. And a slew of images, because they were separate, couldn’t unify the event, provide perspective on it. How to convey the shit-filled Superdome, with its rent roof, dead bodies, and lack of water; as well as the displaced, making new lives, or temporary lives, in other cities across the country, filling Houston; or the miles and miles of destruction along the coast, neighborhoods piled with boards and the detritus of lives, the useless politicians. . .

In Salem, we are surrounded by nuclear reactors. There’s one up the coast in Seabrook, New Hampshire, less than thirty miles as the crow flies, and there’s one south of us in Plymouth, forty-two miles away. The unpredictable ocean is down the block.

And so, hoping to get some perspective, I returned to Cole’s work, looking at The Course of Empire on the Thomas Cole website, and I looked into Fukushima Daiichi, too. All around me, Salem transitioned from summer to fall. The air dried out and chilled. The tourist shops revived for “Haunted Happenings,” the month-long party that climaxes with 60,000 people coming into the city on Halloween night, pretending to be other people, or creatures, pretending to be already dead.

The Savage State


An unseen sun lights the bay, but the painting is more dark than light, full of green and black, night’s footprint still on the unruly landscape. At the center of the painting is the mountain, rising into the sun. It is only the mountain, and nature, that face the morning, that look toward the future. The sprinkling of people are too busy paddling their canoes on the bay, or hunting, or dancing around a fire, that mini-sun.

And at the top of the mountain, the boulder sits. It is a good place to watch the sea, the sunrise, to study the coastline, where one might paint, or write a poem.

Toward the bottom of the painting, just in front of a leaping deer with an arrow lodged in its breast, is the ghost of a figure in the dark wood. The figure is clearly human, presumably a hunter, but it’s at least twice as tall as the deer, a shadowy giant. It is from an early draft of the painting, and we only are aware of it because of the work of time: pentimento, the process in which previous drafts of a painting become visible as it ages. As the colors fade, the earlier figure emerges from the shadowy forest. Those in Cole’s time did not see this ghost hunter. What year, I wonder, was he reborn?

It’s a simple revision, something writers and painters do all the time—wrong word, wrong image, wrong place. But it seems significant. First, none of the indigenous people in the completed painting is near the size of this ghost hunter, and none is so close to the painting’s center, so much in the foreground. In the process of composing, Cole must have realized that he wanted humans to seem less visible, less present, just another detail in the landscape. The wounded deer is the most prominent creature, and that arrow is enough of a reminder of human power and presence.

Yet making the figure that large, that prominent, suggests how Cole’s mind may have gotten ahead of itself, how he knew the role humans would play on the landscape. That ghost hunter had just been waiting to emerge from the dark. It has been with us since the beginning.

The Ghost Hunter

After a century he reappears
In the darkest part of the landscape,
An echo of a silhouette
From before the savage state.

He’s more than twice the size
Of the wounded deer—
The single arrow in its side,
A circle of blood where it enters.

In the next instant, the deer will leap
Through him, and his body, whatever it is
Made of, will feel the rush of spirit,
The scrape of the protruding arrow.

He will be touched by the blood
And become more visible.

The Arcadian or Pastoral State

Thomas Cole The Course of Empire

The people are whiter and more clothed. The landscape is lighter green and tamed. And the mountain, it turns out, is not the only one. A much larger one rises behind it, more jagged and rocky, less flora.

People are leisurely, sketching in the dirt, dancing, playing music, but in the corner, two men on horseback. We can only see their top halves, a horse’s head. And who is that centurion, appearing from behind the leafy rock?

The boulder, which occupied the central spot of The Savage State, is now seen in the left-hand corner. In the center now is a fire, though this is not the cooking fire of the previous painting. This fire has been circled by marble columns, and has been brought to a hill on the coast. It isn’t functional, but ceremonial. No one’s roasting food over it. No one seems to be tending it, either.

It is here, with the land more cleared and cultivated, that I can begin to imagine a nuclear power plant. It could be almost anywhere.

It could sit where the fire sits, replacing that classical, columned temple.

Or it could rise just a bit inland, on the grassy stretch where a shirtless shepherd tends sheep and two goats crash horns.

Or perhaps in the clearing where a man and woman dance to music from a piper.

The Consummation of Empire


An ancient cityscape, green replaced with white. On either side of the boat-filled bay, white marble columns of grand buildings and throngs in tunics.

There is now a path to the boulder, swerving up the rising cliff. Buildings appear along the path, but none too near the boulder itself. Across the bay, opposite the boulder, and much larger than it, though not quite as high, a golden dome rises from the marble. The yellow stands out against all the white, the orb a contrast to all the pillars and towers, a phony sun.

We have harnessed the power of energy, of the atom. There are fifty-four nuclear plants in Japan. But can that power really be harnessed? More than four years after the earthquake and tsunami, Fukushima Daiichi still leaks radioactive material into the air and the water. People exposed to the radiation will die early. Whole towns have been abandoned, contaminated pets and farm animals left to die. Miles of the coastline will be uninhabitable for decades.

The power company said there was no way to have predicted such an earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster, but some scientists had, in fact, done exactly that. These scientists have predicted even worse nuclear disasters triggered by earthquakes happening soon. Some predictions for the future of Japan, a country which sits above the intersection of four tectonic plates, are beyond grim. There’s a power plant two hours from Tokyo, Hamaoka, that’s especially precarious. It sits directly in an active fault zone.

It’s hard to find definitive answers about the long-term effects of a nuclear disaster. Governments and the nuclear power industry often obfuscate, making truths hard to extract, and the effects of radioactive contamination are difficult to measure accurately. Silent and invisible, radiation gets into the ground where cattle graze, then into our milk and meat. It makes birds lose tail feathers, which inhibits mating. Around Fukushima it has created abnormalities in butterflies, making their wings shrink and their eyes deform. And we’re still learning what the range of effects might be. A scientist studying the butterflies after Fukushima said,

“It had been believed that insects are very resistant to radiation.”

The effects of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster are still being debated. Some claim that the dead zone surrounding the ruined plant has become a haven for rare animals, like lynx. But others note that reproduction rates are lower and abnormalities higher among some species. Birds, we’re told, make their nests in the holes in Chernobyl’s sarcophagus, yet trees in the area have grown into strange twisted shapes, the radiation affecting their system so that they don’t reach for the sky.

When I poke around on the internet, or watch documentaries about Fukushima and Chernobyl, I sense the story is still unfolding, and will continue for years. Still, amidst all the claims, it’s the word “uninhabitable” that gets me. According to authorities, who generally sugarcoat these things, Chernobyl, and a thirty-kilometer radius around it, will be uninhabitable for the next 180-220 years.

How full of white is the painting, the midday sun soaking the marble, the marble reflected in the water. People are everywhere, littering the bridges and promontories, crowding the base of what seems to be the capitol, and filling its outdoor tiers. The capitol’s grand steps are lined with priests in white robes and soldiers with spears. It is a celebration.


Thomas Cole The Course of Empire

Oh, yes, then there’s war: 9-11, Hiroshima, dirty bombs. Cole’s painting is dramatic and predictable: fires, shattered statues and bridges, panic, rape, a horizon of smoke. The boulder, curiously enough, is creeping back to the center of the painting. It sits just under the billowing smoke from the chaos in foreground.

Who is the seated figure huddled in the green robe, its back to the enormous shattered marble visage? In front of the figure a dead woman lies, throat slit, legs splayed. Her foot dangles in a bathing pool, where an axe rises out of the water from the hand of a drowned soldier. Just beyond is another woman, screaming to the heavens, head pulled back by a soldier grabbing her hair, a dead infant at her feet. Among it all, the figure sits like a shrub, only a hint of a face, looking down, its green robe a distinctive blot among the blood and flesh, tunics and marble.

Reading the notes about the painting, I see that the dead woman is not a woman, but a young boy, and the figure shrouded in green is his mourning mother. I look closer at the mother, the boy…maybe, maybe not. Tunics are so unisex.

So let me make that figure in green what I wish. It could be me. I can see me (or you) helpless in the onslaught, trying not to look, not caring that the green stands out, makes me an obvious target. My back is hunched, my head down. Maybe I’m even looking at a computer screen hidden inside the bulky robe. Maybe I’m recording details, maybe I’m writing a poem. Maybe my fingers just twitch above the keyboard and I have nothing to say.

Internet Headlines (a found poem)

Stress shrank brains of Tsunami survivors
Tsunami motorbike washes up in Canada
36 percent of Fukushima children diagnosed with abnormal thyroid growth
Fukushima a “man-made disaster” says report
Fukushima workers told to lie about radiation exposure
Japan ignores protests and resumes nuclear power

Studying Destruction on the Thomas Cole website, I push a button to zoom into the darkness at the base of the painting. I’m hoping for an image to coalesce, but instead my computer screen suddenly reflects my own face in murk, staring grimly, trying to make out swords and blood from the long-ago brushstrokes.


Thomas Cole The Course of Empire

In his letter to Lumen Reed, Cole had proposed that the last painting:

must be a sunset,—the mountains riven—the city a desolate ruin—columns standing isolated amid encroaching waters—ruined temples, broken bridges, fountains, sarcophagi &c.—no human figure—a solitary bird perhaps: a calm & silent effect.

And there is a black bird, probably a cormorant, nesting atop an unattached column in the painting’s foreground; its tail feathers look intact. If you look hard, a few deer can be made out in the middle distance, near the shore, uninjured.

In the middle of writing this essay, almost by accident, I spent a weekend in Catskill, New York, where Thomas Cole lived the last fifteen years of his life, where he painted The Course of Empire, as well as many landscapes of the Catskills that helped define a country and its people’s relation to the land. Sometimes, his panoramic landscapes would be sketched en plein aire, from a perch atop a mountain. Cole liked to use trees in the foreground as framing devices, and often they were dead or oddly shaped, leafless and hunched toward the ground; “blasted” is the word that art critics favor. They remind me of the warped trees of Chernobyl.

Hiking with family, it took an hour to reach Sunset Rock from the base of the mountain. From the rock I could look west, into what to Cole must have seemed endless wilderness. I glimpsed down and saw North South Lake, a few canoes and kayaks ambling in its center, the small beach with the prescribed swimming area.

Untitled-6 Untitled-7

Late in his career, Cole painted this scene at least twice. Two paintings from 1844 show the competing versions of art, and the world, within him. Catskill Mountain House: The Four Elements has all the melodrama of his moralistic later works. A fire rises from the forest on the far right, and perhaps another burns on the backside of a distant mountain; a storm streaks the sky black on the left. A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning, painted in the same year, feels as simple and direct as its title, the greens, yellows and browns gently shifting through the composition, everything gradual. In this painting, Sunset Rock itself appears in the foreground, and in its shadow a man stands, sturdily, walking stick in his hand.

I was standing on what I guessed had to be Sunset Rock, an egg-shaped boulder the size of a small truck sitting squatly on a rocky promontory. My children and their cousins hopped down in front of me onto the last plateau of rock before the sky. I watched them leap a small chasm. I didn’t need to go down there, to get that close. My nephew, Joe, an energetic seven year old, said he wanted to push the rock over the edge. “I don’t think this rock has moved in a long time,” his father said.

And it suddenly occurred to me that Sunset Rock is that boulder perched on the mountainside throughout The Course of Empire. Cole has lifted it, put a “real toad” in his imaginary garden.
Just like Sunset Rock, that boulder on top of the mountain in Cole’s paintings never moved, not over all those imagined centuries. No levers or machinery or gangs of men pushing together dropped it over the cliff and into the sea, just as no one moved the Sunset Rock, nudging it so that it rolled down the mountainside, bashing trees until they brought its momentum to a halt somewhere in the leaves below.

In the paintings, the boulder survives civilization, its progress and wars. No one took the time to push it into the sea, not even some drunken boys after a night of driving too fast. It sits above the ruins, as if a ruin itself, another unattached pedestal in the evening air.

I want to be beside that boulder in this last painting, to sit with my back against it. I can look outward, the horizon offering its constant dream, the waves coming in rough or smooth, the dance of the day. Or I can gaze inward, taking in what was once a bay, then a harbor, and now, again, a bay.

Maybe I could look out over my hometown of Salem, follow its progress the way Cole followed his imaginary world. I’d watch it grow from the hovel that housed Anne Bradstreet to the mania of the witch trials; watch Hawthorne walking past the mansions of Chestnut Street, brooding over their ostentatious wealth; watch the Polish, the Italians, the French Canadians, the Puerto Ricans, the Dominicans claim their place; and all the while the city slowly expanding, landfill pushing the water out, soccer fields and shopping centers appearing on its outskirts.

To believe that the boulder will still be there, that the mountain will still be there…. In the shadow of Hiroshima, of Chernobyl and Fukushima, The Course of Empire seems a nineteenth-century romance. A serene nature won’t necessarily triumph. If not a bomb, an earthquake would knock that boulder off its perch, would send half the mountainside sliding into the foam below. In our atomic age, nature is not so indestructible, so permanent. “It had been believed that insects are very resistant to radiation.”

As Swedish Nobel physicist Hannes Alfvén said about the risks of nuclear power, “No acts of God can be permitted.”

Coda: Salem

View of Salem From Gallows Hill, (1818), Alvan Fisher

View of Salem From Gallows Hill, (1818), Alvan Fisher

Oh, old city of the new world, painted and repainted, lead-painted and spray-painted, bricked and cobbled, burned to the ground and risen, shallow-harbored and forgotten, scene of early sins, Naumkeag, Shalom. Now some say the accusing girls may have gone delirious because of something in the bread, now they shut down the coal-burning plant that paid for our schools and ruined our lungs.

I stand in you, I walk in you, I bike through you. I hear your sirens and cicadas, I swim at your small, waveless beaches. I drip my sweat on your asphalt. I listen to your poems every other Tuesday. I lie in a hammock and sleep in you, the shade of you.

Cole painted The Course of Empire in the 1830s. If the Seabrook nuclear plant, which is just up the coast in New Hampshire, had been around back then, and if a nuclear accident like Chernobyl had occurred at it, Salem would be becoming habitable just this decade. It would have no monuments recognizing the dead from the First World War, or the second, no statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the city’s reluctant son, no kitschy statue of actor Elizabeth Montgomery in her role as a TV witch; there would have been no Great Salem Fire.

I have never seen a ghost hunter in this curious town that fills each Halloween with ghosts, that celebrates them. Of course, the ghost hunter begins his life unseen, tasteless; only gradually do his outlines become visible. If we wait, he will appear.

View Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire and read the history behind this iconic series of paintings: http://www.explorethomascole.org/tour/items/69/series/



  1. Bonnie Bishop on

    What a gorgeous, smart, original essay: historic, ekphrasic, lyrical, and current. I, too, have seen these paintings, looked long at them, but I missed some of the more cogent things this writer talks about here. And as a neighbor of Salem, I especially love the closing paragraphs about the author’s hometown.

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