Cole created a magnificent cycle of five paintings called The Course of Empire, which tells the story of an empire through its rise and fall. Each scene is set along the banks of a river and a distinctly recognizable crag juts out in the distance to anchor us viewers in the landscape through time. This painting is the fourth in the series, where the empire implodes upon itself. The painting has been making the rounds on various articles written now about Trump, the quarantine, and the riots in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police.
As you scroll through the images here to see the details, you will see banners of green and red, indicating that there are two sides to this battle taking place on the water and on both sides of the river. Boats full of soldiers are being burned and the warfare on the ground is gruesome, with women and children being slaughtered. In the center of the painting a makeshift bridge hangs where a stronger stone one used to stand; it is brimming with civilians and soldiers fighting one another and looks as though it is about to give way. It most surely was the bridge that joined these two sides of the river and allied its cultures not long before. The colossal statue of the striving soldier is badly damaged and the head lies broken on the ground. At one time it represented the advancement of the empire, but now represents its ruination.