While Thomas Cole built a successful career painting the scenery of the Hudson River Valley, he aspired to imbue landscape with a higher purpose. As early as 1827 he conceived a grand cycle of paintings that would illustrate the rise and fall of a civilization, and a few years later he began sketching and developing his ideas. The resulting series charts the course of an imaginative empire as it appears in the midst of wilderness, expands into a glistening metropolis, and collapses into ruin. Cole’s pessimistic allegory about doomed imperial ambition—likely intended as a warning about the fate of the United States—differed from prevailing beliefs among his contemporaries that the young Republic would never fail.
Luman Reed, who commissioned The Course of Empire, did not live to see its completion. He died in June 1836, but Reed's family encouraged Cole to complete the work. The series was exhibited to great acclaim in New York later that year. The Course of Empire, along with the rest of Reed's collection, became the core of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts. That group of works was donated to the New-York Historical Society in 1858, forming the foundation of its acclaimed collection of American landscape painting.
For the last painting in the series, Cole described how "violence and time have crumbled the works of man, and art is again resolving into elemental nature. The gorgeous pageant has passed, the roar of battle has ceased—the multitude has sunk into the dust—the empire is extinct." The sun is setting, and nature is again reclaiming the landscape. A lizard crawls up a grand column that once supported a palace or temple, and herons nest atop it. Vines grow over the ruins. Cole’s signature appears, at lower right, upside down and incised into a stone slab that is partially overgrown with vegetation. Its placement signals the artist's own mortality and the eventual demise all the works of humankind.