Like his friend and fellow artist Frederic Edwin Church, Sanford Robinson Gifford sought inspiration both in the northeastern United States and further afield. The Ruins of the Parthenon derives from sketches he made while visiting the Acropolis in 1869. In this depiction, the famous temple is surrounded by strewn architectural fragments and studied by a sketching artist (possibly a self-portrait) and his Greek guide. However, the hilltop setting ultimately serves to showcase another more subtle motif: a remarkable range of light and atmospheric effects that Gifford rendered with unrivaled and much-heralded finesse. The sky's nearly invisible transitions from pale pinks near the horizon to deep blues above evidence the artist's frequent remark to his brother that of all of his paintings, this one demanded the most "painstaking labor." Tellingly, Gifford referenced his precise portrayal of light and atmosphere by deeming the completed work "not a picture of a building, but a picture of a day."
The artist considered The Ruins of the Parthenon—his last important painting—the crowning achievement of his career, and hoped that it would be acquired by an American museum. When he visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and reached the gallery featuring Church's Niagara, he remarked: "there would be a good place for my ‘Parthenon.'" Although the painting remained unsold at Gifford's death, the Corcoran purchased it at his estate sale in 1881 for $5,100, at the time the highest price ever paid for one of the artist's paintings.