Cole applied his symbolic vision of landscape to how the making and breaking of nations leaves its mark on the Earth. His series titled The Course of Empire, painted from 1834 through 1836, follows civilization from The Savage State, through The Arcadian or Pastoral State, to The Consummation of Empire, and, finally, The Destruction of Empire (above, from 1836) and Desolation. In The Destruction of Empire, all hell breaks loose as the trappings of civilization fall prey to humanity’s destructive impulses. The statue of the heroic warrior in the foreground literally loses his head as all those around lose theirs. Works such as Volney’s The Ruins, or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires impressed on many nineteenth-century intellectuals the cyclical nature of civilizations throughout history, which Cole stirringly represents in his series.
To mirror the cyclical nature of societies with the cyclical nature of a single life, Cole painted in 1840 the series The Voyage of Life, a series that depicts symbolically Childhood, Youth, Manhood (above), and Old Age. Cole wrote the following of Manhood: "Trouble is characteristic of the period of Manhood. In childhood, there is no carking care: in youth, no despairing thought. It is only when experience has taught us the realities of the world, that we lift from our eyes the golden veil of early life; that we feel deep and abiding sorrow: and in the Picture, the gloomy, eclipse-like tone, the conflicting elements, the trees riven by tempest, are the allegory; and the Ocean, dimly seen, figures the end of life, which the Voyager is now approaching." In Cole’s vision, human life literally merges with the natural landscape in the end, physically consummating the spiritual union Cole and the Transcendentalists saw as a life-long affair. Cole’s landscapes continue to inspire through their beauty and symbolic weight as much as through their enduring optimism and spiritual hopefulness.