The Course of the Empire: Desolation - Thomas Cole, 1833-36
Totally relevant for today’s lecture on landscapes, albeit ours is on 19th century photography rather than painting.
In Cole’s painting, the footprints of Man* trail across this view of Nature. Architectural monuments of a former Great Empire now lie in ruin. The wild green growth seems to overtake the decayed marble structures, and the river extends with a reach so vast that we cannot see its end.
Yet, the foregrounded Corinthian column is the tallest, brightest and most dominant feature of the painting. It glows with reflected white moonlight. Cole’s vision suggests the formation of a new temple, in which the man-made column supports the weight of the heavenly skies. Perhaps man’s influence on the natural world has not diminished as much as it would seem?
The painting shows how landscapes functions as settings for imagined stories about the past, present and future - as much as they serve as representations of the natural world. In photography, as we shall see, the medium offers a different manner of myth-making, and views of another nature.
*Capitalized words intentional due to their symbolic and signifying values.