In 1836 William Paterson Van Rensselaer commissioned Thomas Cole to produce a pair canvases representing morning and evening. The Departure, set in summer, depicts a lord leading a detachment of knights on some valiant crusade. The Return, an autumn landscape, shows him being carried to church on a stretcher, trailed by a lone escort and his riderless horse. The two paintings were well-received. A critic for the New-York Mirror offered the following praise:
“These pictures represent Morning and Evening, or Sunrise and Sunset; and are, merely from that point of view, invaluable. They contrast the glowing warmth of one, with the cool tints and broad shadows of the other; and to do this is the work of a master, who has studied nature and loves her….Not only this is done, but a story is told by the poet-painter, elucidating at once, the times of chivalry and feudal barbarism, and the feelings with which man rushes forth in the morning of day and of life, and the slow and funereal movements which attend the setting of his sun.”
Cole had finished another allegorical series, Course of Empire, earlier in 1836, and would go on to produce The Voyage of Life in 1842.