A Realist View of 19th Century Landscape Painting: Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire.
Through an iconographic analysis of the works of Hudson River School painters, American artists who achieved mainstream popularity during their time, this paper explores how notions derived from classical realist theory of international relations are present in American artwork during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The paintings evoke empirical assumptions about the world and human nature which form the basis of realism – a theoretical tradition which originated in ancient Greece and has persisted to the present as a major school of political thought. The subject matter and stylistic choices of many of these paintings effectively suggest ideas that parallel core realist beliefs, including the triumph of nature over humanity, the tendency to regard history as cyclical, and the tragedy of human achievement due to its juxtaposition with human transgression. Because the United States pursued a largely realist foreign policy during the late nineteenth century, these paintings are a reflection of the American world view during this time.