In the mid-19th century, pure landscape pictures were traditionally ranked lower than other subject matter, such as themes from history, mythology, literature, or religion. Thomas Cole sought to create what he called a “higher style of landscape” that blended narrative elements into carefully executed scenes from nature. His use of two canvases allowed him to build his narrative to even greater technical and emotional heights. The Departure introduces a troop of knights embarking on a heroic crusade in the early summer led by their lord on his valiant white horse. In The Return, a smaller group—weary and defeated—trudges home in the autumn dusk; they carry the dying lord, his riderless horse trailing behind.
The two landscapes were commissioned as a pair by wealthy landowner William Paterson Van Rensselaer in December 1836, specifying only that the paintings should depict morning and evening. Cole had recently enjoyed critical and popular success for his epic five-canvas series, The Course of Empire (1836, The New-York Historical Society) completed earlier in the year, which likely made Van Rensselaer choose him for the project. That Cole achieved his goal of a “higher style of landscape” among his contemporaries is reflected in the praise the paintings received in an 1837 New-York Mirror review:
"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."