The voyage of life

A look at Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School and leading American landscape painter of the 1830s and 40s, and his ‘Voyage of Life’ series.

The voyage of life: 'Childhood.' 1839 (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
The voyage of life: 'Childhood.' 1839
(photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
In the mid-19th century, when expansion westward and settlement of the new frontier was at the forefront of American idealism, the discovery of new and unexplored territory became an exciting American experience. This was the Romantic period, and some painters sought to emphasize the awesomeness of nature as well as the importance of nationalism. They wanted to capture this newly infiltrated yet unabused territory to establish an art Americans could call their own.
This movement, the Hudson River School, found embodiment in a group of landscape painters across the country, and one such painter, Thomas Cole – regarded as the school’s founder – would make a lasting impression on the American art scene.
As Kevin J. Avery of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of American Paintings and Sculpture explains, Cole, born in England in 1801, emigrated with his family to the US at the age of 17. He first worked as a wood engraver in Philadelphia before going to Steubenville, Ohio, where his father owned a wallpaper manufacturing business. Not content with working in the business, Cole received rudimentary instruction from an itinerant artist, began painting portraits, genre paintings and a few landscapes, and set out to seek his fortune through Ohio and Pennsylvania.
After moving to New York City in 1825, Cole took a trip up the Hudson River to the eastern Catskill Mountains in the vicinity of the new Catskill Mountain House hotel. Based on his sketches there and along the river, he painted three landscapes that a city bookseller agreed to display in his window.
Col. John Trumbull, already renowned as the painter of the American Revolution, saw Cole’s pictures and instantly purchased one, recommending the other two to his colleagues William Dunlap and Asher B. Durand.
What Trumbull recognized in the work of the young painter was the perception of unrestraint and wildness inherent in American scenery that landscape artists had, before that time, ignored. Trumbull brought Cole to the attention of various clients, who began eagerly purchasing his work. Dunlap publicized the discovery of Cole’s talent, and Cole was welcomed into New York’s cultural community, which included poet and editor William Cullen Bryant and author James Fenimore Cooper. Bryant gave a beautiful eulogy and write a wonderful poem about Cole after the latter’s early death.
Cole became one of the founding members of the National Academy of Design in 1826. By 1829, his success enabled him to take a grand tour of Europe and especially Italy, where he remained for two years, visiting Florence, Rome and Naples. Influenced by his surroundings, he painted many Italian subjects.
His travels and the encouragement and patronage of New York merchant Luman Reed culminated in his most ambitious historical landscape series, “The Course of Empire” (1834–36; New York Historical Society), five pictures dramatizing the rise and fall of an ancient classical state.
Over time, perhaps partly as a result of marriage, he experienced increasing religious piety, and this manifested in the “Voyage of Life” series.
AS RECORDED by numerous art historians and museums, including the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute, early in March of 1839, the prominent New York banker and philanthropist Samuel Ward Sr. commissioned Cole to paint an allegorical series of four paintings entitled “The Voyage of Life.”
The series aimed to represent the four stages of man: childhood, youth, manhood and old age. Each work is about 4.5 feet by 6.5 feet (1.4 meters by 2 m.). There are two versions of the work, one at the National Gallery in Washington, the other at the Munson- Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York.
Cole began work on the first of the series, Childhood, in September 1839, using a number of preliminary pencil drawings and oil sketches as his guide.
Early in 1840, he began work on Youth, the second picture. He painted the third, Manhood, in the summer and fall of that year, followed by Old Age.
His great success in “The Voyage of Life” was his synthesis of three related ideas: Life is a pilgrimage; a person’s life can be divided into four distinct stages; and the course of a person’s life can be metaphorically compared to a journey on a river that winds its way through a magical landscape.
Despite Ward’s unexpected death several months after Cole began the series, the artist completed the four paintings in 1840. Difficulties with Ward’s heirs prompted Cole to paint a second full-size set in Rome during the winter of 1841-1842.
Of the series, the painter writes, “There are many windings in the stream of life, and on this idea I have proceeded. Its course towards the Ocean of Eternity we all know to be certain, but not direct. Each picture I have wished to make a sort of antithesis to the other, thereby the more fully to illustrate the changeable tenor of our mortal existence. I am convinced the opinion of spectators will be various on the subject of the direction of the stream. This I have gathered from remarks already made. That which you have thought might be a defect, has been considered a beauty.”
Joy S. Kasson points out in her article “The Voyage of Life: Thomas Cole and Romantic Disillusionment” that “contemporary writers praised Cole’s allegories for their high moral tone, but the artist found few patrons willing to buy them. Cole bitterly lamented the need to continue what he called ‘potboiling,’ painting simple landscape views with no higher message, complaining that the public wanted ‘things, not thoughts,’ and protesting, ‘I am not a mere leaf-painter.’” IN EACH painting, the voyager, accompanied by a guardian angel, rides in a boat on the River of Life. The landscape plays a major role in telling the story.
In Childhood, all the important elements of the series are introduced: the voyager, the angel, the hourglass, the river and the expressive landscape. An infant is safely settled in a boat guided by an angel and the boat glides from a dark cave, which Cole himself described as “emblematic of our earthly origin, and the mysterious past,” into a lush, green landscape reminiscent of a sort of Garden of Eden. The dawning light represents a promising future.
As Earl A. Powell writes, “everything is calm and basking in warm sunshine, reflecting the innocence and joy of childhood. The river is smooth and narrow, symbolizing the sheltered experience of childhood. The figurehead on the prow holds an hourglass representing time.”
In Youth, the same rich, green landscape exists, but here the view widens, as does the voyager’s experience. Now, the youth, standing at the helm, grabs the tiller firmly and aims for a shining, ghostly castle in the sky – representing his dreams and ambitions – as the angel watches from the shore, as if relinquishing him to the perils of life.
The boy’s enthusiasm and energy is evident in his forward-leaning posture as he reaches for his supposed future, oblivious to what lies ahead.
To the youth, the calm river seems to lead straight to the castle, but at the far right of the painting, above the angel’s left shoulder, one can just glimpse the river as it becomes rough, choppy and full of rocks. The journey appears to be smooth and easy, but the youth does not see this turbulent future.
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.”
In Manhood, the adult relies on prayer and religious faith to sustain him through rough waters and a threatening landscape. The dark reality of life becomes apparent as the beautiful, lush landscape from his earlier years all but disappears on the left as it gives way to a barren, rocky environment.
Barely discernible above, within the dark, ominous clouds hover the demons that trouble him throughout his adult life.
The air is thick and heavy; the light casts an orange glow throughout.
The angel has distanced himself even further from the voyager as he experiences the turbulent years of his manhood.
The weathered trees to the right are wind-broken; gnarled roots and branches juxtaposed with the rapids suggest violent movement and pessimism.
However, the calm ocean lies ahead in the distance, suggesting that the period of crisis is only temporary.
Cole writes, “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.”
In the final painting, Old Age, 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 have disappeared from the shattered boat, and the tiller to guide it is gone – having served the purpose no longer existent. The landscape is practically gone; just a few rough rocks to the right represent the edge of the earthly world from which he emerges. The man appears to be praying, but this time in thanks for survival and safe passage through his turbulent years. The angel accompanies him to heaven, where other angels wait and the bright, white light suggests divinity.
Cole describes the scene: “The chains of corporeal existence are falling away; and already the mind has glimpses of immortal life.”