But, it should be said, art is a product that depends upon the reception of that product, in order to be considered successful. Sadly, many artists fail regardless of their talents, and dedication and time devoted to development of skill. Thomas Cole was no different. While these paintings were successful, as a painter he and his family were often hungry and hoping for a sale, or two.
The series of paintings were begun as a response to the inspiration from Lord Byron's poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage .
(Verse quotes of Lord Byron from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage)
The Savage State
"Full from the fount of Joy's delicious springs
Some bitter o'er the flowers its bubbling venom flings. "
The Arcadian State
"But 'midst the crowd, the hum, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel, and to possess,
And roam along, the world's tired denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless."
The Consummation of Empire
"But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!
Did ye not hear it?—No! 't was but the wind,
Or the car rattling o'er the stony street.
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing hours with flying feet."
"Could I embody and unbosom now
That which is most within me,--could I wreak
My thoughts upon expression, and thus throw
Soul, heart, mind, passions, feelings, strong or weak,
All that I would have sought, and all I seek,
Bear, know, feel, and yet breathe--into one word,
And that one word were lightning, I would speak,
But as it is, I live and die unheard,
With a most voiceless thought, sheathing it as a sword."
"There is the moral of all human tales;
'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory – when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption – barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page..."
Some Further Notes
Lord Byron was not referring to Rome when writing. Although the life cycle of an empire certainly fit/applies, he was referring to the recent, for him, wars of empire of France, England and Russia. The wars of Europe had gone on long and the people were exhausted by it.
There are symbolic clues to the poem regarding the cycle of life of an empire. The first painting shows a wild land being pummeled by storms, in the dawn's light. The Arcadian state is one where it is mid morning, and there is a calm about the world depicted. The Consummation of Empire depicts a developed, busy state, in the light of a later afternoon. By the Destruction era, the sun is setting, and the world is not just busy but is panicked. Finally in Desolation, the calm has returned, but there are no people to be seen in the image. Nightfall and the moon are seen, as the viewer realizes that the empire has died, and is close to being now forgotten.