The Voyage of Life

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Thomas Cole, c. 1844–1848

The Voyage of Life is a series of four paintings created by Thomas Cole in 1842, representing an allegory of the four stages of human life. The paintings, Childhood, Youth, Manhood, and Old Age, depict a voyager who travels in a boat on a river through the mid-19th-century American wilderness. In each painting the voyager rides the boat on the River of Life accompanied by a guardian angel. The landscape, each reflecting one of the four seasons of the year, plays a major role in conveying the story. With each installment 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.[1] 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, while 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]


Cole's renowned four-part series traces the journey of an archetypal hero along the "River of Life." Confidently assuming control of his destiny and oblivious to the dangers that await him, the voyager boldly strives to reach an aerial castle, emblematic of the daydreams of "Youth" and its aspirations for glory and fame. As the traveler approaches his goal, the ever more turbulent stream deviates from its course and relentlessly carries him toward the next picture in the series, where nature's fury, evil demons, and self-doubt will threaten his very existence. Only prayer, Cole suggests, can save the voyager from a dark and tragic fate.

From the innocence of childhood, to the flush of youthful overconfidence, through the trials and tribulations of middle age, to the hero's triumphant salvation, The Voyage of Life seems intrinsically linked to the Christian doctrine of death and resurrection. Cole's intrepid voyager also may be read as a personification of America, itself at an adolescent stage of development. The artist may have been issuing a dire warning to those caught up in the feverish quest for Manifest Destiny: that unbridled westward expansion and industrialization would have tragic consequences for both man and the land itself.[2]


The Voyage of Life: Childhood
Thomas Cole - The Voyage of Life Childhood, 1842 (National Gallery of Art).jpg
ArtistThomas Cole
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions133 cm × 198 cm (52 in × 78 in)
LocationNational Gallery of Art

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."[3] The river is smooth and narrow, symbolizing the sheltered experience of childhood. The figurehead on the prow holds an hourglass representing time.

Detail of Thomas Cole's The Voyage of Life: Childhood: The boat, child, and angel on the water.


The Voyage of Life: Youth
Thomas Cole - The Ages of Life - Youth - WGA05140.jpg
ArtistThomas Cole
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions134 cm × 194 cm (53 in × 76 in)
LocationNational Gallery of Art

The second painting, Youth, shows the same lush, green landscape, but here the view widens as does the voyager's life experience. Now the youth has firm hold of the tiller as the angel watches and waves from the shore, allowing him to take control. The subject's youthful enthusiasm and energy is evident in his forward-thrusting pose and billowing clothes. In the distance, an ethereal citadel towers in the sky, a shimmering white beacon that represents the dreams and ambitions of humanity.

Detail of Thomas Cole's The Voyage of Life: Youth: shows the boy departing in the boat; the angel bids him farewell from the shore.

To the youth, the tranquil river appears to lead directly to the shimmering beacon, but at the far right of the painting one can just glimpse the river as it changes to become rough and difficult with the danger 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."


The Voyage of Life: Manhood
Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life, 1842, National Gallery of Art.jpg
ArtistThomas Cole
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions132.8 cm × 198.1 cm (52.3 in × 78.0 in)
LocationNational Gallery of Art

Third in the series, Manhood, shows a now grown figure in the vessel, amid the tribulations of adult life. Storm clouds ominously darken the sky, wind whips at the man's clothing and rain falls in the background as the boat approaches a treacherous part of the river which has become rocky and rapid, running through a treacherous gorge marked by a gnarled, leafless tree. Gentler country lies at the bottom of the defile and the distant sky line lightens in that direction hinting of the hope of better times ahead. Among the dangers the man has not lost his faith: he has let go of his boat's tiller (which may have broken) and is part kneeling, gazing upward with arms raised in prayer. The vessel's figurehead now holds the hourglass while far above, behind and unseen by the voyager, his guardian angel continues to watch over from the Heavens, shining brightly through a break in the clouds.

Old Age[edit]

The Voyage of Life: Old Age
Thomas Cole - The Voyage of Life Old Age, 1842 (National Gallery of Art).jpg
ArtistThomas Cole
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions133.4 cm × 196.2 cm (52.5 in × 77.2 in)
LocationNational Gallery of Art

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, an angel descends from heaven, while the guardian angel hovers close, gesturing toward the other. The man is once again joyous with the knowledge that Faith has sustained him through this perilous life to the promise of Heaven. 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."

Detail of Thomas Cole's The Voyage of Life: Old Age: The man in the boat with the angel.

Cultural significance[edit]

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 (1807–1885) 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.[4]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica Retrieved December 15, 2010
  2. ^ Cole, Thomas (1842), The Voyage of Life: Manhood, retrieved 2017-09-04
  3. ^ Powell 1990
  4. ^ Powell 1997

Cited works[edit]

External links[edit]