The Voyage of Life
The Voyage of Life, painted by Thomas Cole in 1842, is a series of paintings that represent an allegory of the four stages of human life: childhood, youth, manhood, and old age. The paintings follow a voyager who travels in a boat on a river through the mid-19th-century American wilderness. In each painting, accompanied by a guardian angel, the voyager rides the boat on the River of Life. The landscape, corresponding to the seasons of the year, plays a major role in telling the story. In each picture, the boat's direction of travel is reversed from the previous picture. In childhood, the infant glides from a dark cave into a rich, green landscape. As a youth, the boy takes control of the boat and aims for a shining castle in the sky. In manhood, the adult relies on prayer and religious faith to sustain him through rough waters and a threatening landscape. Finally, the man becomes old and the angel guides him to heaven across the waters of eternity.
Thomas Cole is regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School, an American art movement that flourished in the mid-19th century and was concerned with the realistic and detailed portrayal of nature but with a strong influence from Romanticism. This group of American landscape painters worked between about 1825 and 1870 and shared a sense of national pride as well as an interest in celebrating the unique natural beauty found in the United States. The wild, untamed nature found in America was viewed as its special character; Europe had ancient ruins, but America had the uncharted wilderness. As Cole's friend William Cullen Bryant sermonized in verse, so Cole sermonized in paint. Both men saw nature as God's work and as a refuge from the ugly materialism of cities. Cole clearly intended The Voyage of Life to be a didactic, moralizing series of paintings using the landscape as an allegory for religious faith.
Unlike Cole's first major series, The Course of Empire, which focused on the stages of civilization as a whole, The Voyage of Life series is a more personal, Christian allegory that interprets visually the journey of man through four stages of life: infancy, youth, manhood and old age. Done on commission, the finished works generated a disagreement with the owner about a public exhibition. In 1842, when Cole was in Rome, he did a second set of the series which on his return to America was shown to acclaim. The first set is at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, and the second set is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
|Type||Oil on canvas|
|Dimensions||133 cm × 198 cm (52 in × 78 in)|
In the first painting, Childhood, all the important story elements of the series are introduced: the voyager, the angel, the river, and the expressive landscape. An infant is safely ensconced in a boat guided by an angel. The landscape is lush; everything is calm and basking in warm sunshine, reflecting the innocence and joy of childhood. The boat glides out of a dark, craggy cave which Cole himself described as "emblematic of our earthly origin, and the mysterious Past." The river is smooth and narrow, symbolizing the sheltered experience of childhood. The figurehead on the prow holds an hourglass representing time.
|Type||Oil on canvas|
|Dimensions||134 cm × 194 cm (53 in × 76 in)|
The second painting, Youth, shows the same rich, green landscape, but here the view widens as does the voyager's experience. Now the youth grabs the tiller firmly as the angel watches and waves from the shore, allowing him to take control. The boy's enthusiasm and energy is evident in his forward-thrusting pose and billowing clothes. In the distance, a ghostly castle hovers in the sky, a white and shimmering beacon that represents the ambitions and dreams of man.
To the youth, the calm river seems to lead straight to the castle, but at the far right of the painting one can just glimpse the river as it becomes rough, choppy, and full of rocks. Cole comments on the landscape and the youth's ambitions: "The scenery of the picture—its clear stream, its lofty trees, its towering mountains, its unbounded distance, and transparent atmosphere—figure forth the romantic beauty of youthful imaginings, when the mind elevates the Mean and Common into the Magnificent, before experience teaches what is the Real."
|Type||Oil on canvas|
|Dimensions||132.8 cm × 198.1 cm (52.3 in × 78.0 in)|
In the next painting, Manhood, the youth has grown into an adult and now faces the trials of life. The boat is damaged and the tiller is gone. The river has become a terrible rush of white water with menacing rocks, dangerous whirlpools, and surging currents. The warm sunlight of youth has been clouded over with dark and stormy skies and torrential rains. The trees have become wind-beaten, gnarled, leafless trunks. The fresh grass is gone, replaced by hard and unforgiving rock.
In the boat, the man no longer displays confidence or even control. The angel appears high in the sky, still watching over the man, who does not see the angel. Man must rely on his faith that the angel is there to help him. Cole states, "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."
Within the painting Manhood there is a strong emphasis on the diagonal: in the rocks which jut up, steep and forbidding, and the river which sweeps downward, threatening to carry anything in or on it over the precipitous drop to the twisting and foaming rapids in the mid-ground. The extreme narrowness of the passage between the two rock face heightens the tension as the viewer tries to determine whether or not a small craft could navigate these tumultuous waters. In addition, evil spirits stare down from the dark clouds above.
It is only in the distant background that the viewer captures a glimpse of the horizon. This line, where the distant ocean meets the sunset colored sky, is the only horizontal line in the painting. Amidst the chaos and confusion of the wild scene in the foreground, one catches a glimpse of possible serenity. Cole has positioned this focal point just below and to the right of center. The combination of the lone horizontal and warm color in an otherwise dark and forbidding scene, beckons the viewer's eye back again and again.
The silhouette of a gnarled tree trunk opposes the diagonals of the rocks and river, forcing the eye back into the scene. Here the twisted and rotting trunk is used, as it often is in Cole's work, as a symbol for the savage (untamed) wilderness and all its dangers. The funnel-shaped cloud that appears above the tree leads the eye up into the forbidding clouds of the sky, over the top and to the left, where the downward arc of the clouds forces it back down again into the river.
|Type||Oil on canvas|
|Dimensions||133.4 cm × 196.2 cm (52.5 in × 77.2 in)|
The final painting, Old Age, is an image of death. The man has grown old; he has survived the trials of life. The waters have calmed; the river flows into the waters of eternity. The figurehead and hourglass are missing from the battered boat; the withered old voyager has reached the end of earthly time. In the distance, angels are descending from heaven, while the guardian angel hovers close, gesturing toward the others. The man is once again joyous with the knowledge that faith has sustained him through life. The landscape is practically gone, just a few rough rocks represent the edge of the earthly world, and dark water stretches onward. Cole describes the scene: "The chains of corporeal existence are falling away; and already the mind has glimpses of Immortal Life."
The Voyage of Life was well received by critics and the public; the United States was experiencing the religious revival sometimes known as the Second Great Awakening. The four paintings were converted to engravings by James Smillie (1807–85) after Cole's death and the engravings widely distributed in time for the Third Great Awakening, giving the series the prestige and popular acclaim it retains today.
- Powell, Earl A. (1990). Thomas Cole. New York: Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 0810931583.
- Miller, Angela (1993). The Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825–1875. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801483387.
- Noble, Louis Legrand (1853). The Life and Works of Thomas Cole. Black Dome Press.
- Powell, Earl C., III (1997). "Thomas Cole's Voyage of Life in the National Gallery of Art". Magazine Antiques (January 1997).