With ambitions to transform landscape painting into a more important and celebrated genre, Cole centered his five-painting series, Course of Empire, on an allegorical cycle of historical progress. This, the first painting of the group, depicts an unspoiled wilderness at dawn. On this site, Cole depicts the rise and fall of civilization, a narrative foreshadowed by the looming storm that casts the dense forest into shadow. This gloom speaks to the demise of the unspoiled world, an ideal state represented by the hunter with bow and arrow who pursues a deer, along with an encampment of tipis and a billowing fire at the right, but it also points to the ultimate destruction of all of man's civilizing endeavors.
The Course of Empire cycle, painted between 1833 and 1836, was Cole's most ambitious project to date, moving from this first work to the The Arcadian or Pastoral State, The Consummation of Empire, Destruction, and the final painting, Desolation. The same landscape, featuring the crag in the background, is portrayed in each work to convey the contrast between enduring nature and human transience.
Despite Cole's interest in an independent American culture, the series is steeped in European influences. In its prioritizing of natural order and the smallness of man's impact on the world, Cole draws from German Romantics like Caspar David Friedrich. The structures of his grand empire are based on classical Roman architecture, popularized in 18th-century prints by artists such as Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Cole took his title from British bishop George Berkeley's "Verses on the Prospect of Planning Arts and Learning in America" (1726). He was also inspired by the Romantic poet Lord George Gordon Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818), even quoting a verse in the promotions for 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...
With this series, Cole felt he had launched "a higher style of landscape," a historical and moralistic allegory. Indeed, Cole's reputation beyond a mere landscape painter was established: James Fenimore Cooper praised the series as not only "the work of the highest genius this country has ever produced," but "one of the noblest works of art that has ever been wrought." Although its display in New York was considered "the most successful exhibition of works of a single American artist, ever had in this city," Cole felt that his deeper message was overshadowed by praise for the pictorial qualities of the paintings. He would later simplify his symbolism for the Voyage of Life series to make it more easily understood by the general public.