Cole did revel in landscape work, but he also sought to combine these epic paintings with narrative and metaphorical themes. The foremost of these is a five-painting series entitled The Course of Empire. Created between 1833 and 1836, these masterworks chart the course of a classical civilization from it's birth to its decay, reflecting the philosophical ideals of the Hudson River School, Romanticism, and the still-young American nation.
Central to each painting is a high bluff, upon which balances a gigantic boulder, symbolic of Earth's continuity and immutability. Each painting in the sequence takes place at a different, and also symbolic, time of day. The first painting, dubbed The Savage State, takes place at dawn in the misty aeons past when humanity were nomadic tribes. In the brightness of morning, The Agrarian, or Pastoral State shows the earliest type of civilization. Agrarianism was considered, at the time, to be the noblest of civilizations, before momentum, ennui and vice corrupts it. The Consummation of Empire occurs at noon, with a decadent culture celebrating its military and cultural victories. This cannot last, however, and darkness begins to fall in the period of Destruction. Finally, the moon rises over the ruins of Desolation.
In his newspaper advertisements for the series, Cole drew from Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, written from 1812-1818. In particular, he cited the following stanzas as the core theme of the series:
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...
The Arcadian, or Pastoral State
The Consummation of Empire