Thomas Cole's Intemperate Empire

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Abstract:

This article situates The Course of Empire (1836), a five-canvas cycle of landscape paintings by American artist Thomas Cole (1801–1848), within the discourse of physiology and temperance reform in the early nineteenth-century United States. Heretofore uninvestigated compositional and thematic resonances between The Course of Empire and Nathaniel Currier (1813–1888) and James Ives's (1824–1895) popular temperance print The Drunkard's Progress (1846) reveal how each charted terminal cases of unregulated consumption from the point of infection through the death of their respective subjects. The two scenes at the apex of these narratives, The Consummation of Empire and “A Confirmed Drunkard,” represent official diagnoses that mark precise moments when self-agency is irrevocably surrendered to objects of desire. They mark points of no return and initiate self-destruct sequences that cause the body and the body politic to fall to pieces.
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