The Voyage of Life: Childhood, Youth, Manhood, Old Age. c. 1860. Engravings. Images: 15 x 22 3/4; sheets 21 3/16 x 28 3/8. The Voyage of Life is one of the key landmarks in American art.
Thomas Cole (1801-1848) is known as the founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting and produced primarily realistic and imaginary landscapes. Samuel Ward commissioned Cole to paint a set of four allegorical paintings in 1839. These four prints, engraved after Cole's paintings, depict the stages of life from birth to death.
The American Art Union (1839-1851), an organization created to support and develop popular appreciation of American art by issuing prints engraved after paintings which the organization owned. Upon Cole's death in 1848, the Art Union voted to purchase the series of paintings for two thousand dollars, intending to distribute the works as a single prize in the year's lottery. In 1849, as a memorial to Cole, it commissioned James David Smillie to engrave Youth for distribution to its members.
The winner of the paintings subsequently sold them. In 1852, the New York State of Appeals declared the Art Union's lottery "illegal and unconstitutional" and the Art Union went into liquidation. However, the ownership of the paintings was not disputed, and their owner contracted Smillie to engrave the three remaining images. The series was extremely popular and went through several printings by different publishers.
Manhood. c. 1860. Engraving. Proof impression. Image: 15 1/2 x 22 3/4; sheet 20 1/2 x 28. 'From the Original Painting by Thomas Cole in the possession of Revd. Gorham D. Abbott, Spingler Institute, New York.' Fully lettered proof with the complete text and the lines from the poem by J.H. Daniels. Publication line: Boston - Published by B.B. Russell, 55 Cornhill. Printed on warm white wove paper with margins. One scratch in the outer right-hand margin; otherwise excellent condition. $2,000.
The Voyage of Life: Childhood, Youth, Manhood, Old Age. c. 1860. Engravings. Images: 15 x 22 3/4; sheets 21 3/16 x 28 3/8. 'From the Original Painting by Thomas Cole in the possession of Revd. Gorham D. Abbott, Spingler Institute, New York.' Fully lettered proof with the complete text and the lines from the poem by J.H. Daniels. Printed by J.H. Daniels, Boston; published by James H.Earle, 10 Hawley Street, Boston. Excellent condition, apart from a tear in the margin in Childhood. Signed in the plate. It is rare to find the complete set issued by the same publisher and in good condition. $5,000 the set.
It is rare to find the complete set issued by the same publisher and in good condition. Fully lettered proofs with the complete text and the lines from the poem by J.H. Daniels. Printed on warm white wove paper. $5,000 the complete set.
The series begins with Childhood, in which a small child and its "Spirit Guide" (guardian angel) emerge from a dark cavern in a boat whose figurehead holds an hour glass. The boat's sides depict more figures of the hours. The cavern represents man's earthly origin and mysterious past; the soft light of morning and the abundant flowers and plants growing alongside the "Stream of Life" are symbols of early life. The narrowness of the river banks and the limited scope of scene represent the limited experience of childhood. The Egyptian lotus, in the foreground, provides another symbol of human existence.
In Youth, the landscape widens and the foliage becomes diversified, with trees overshadowing the bank. Alone in the boat, the "Voyager" takes the helm himself. The "Spirit Guide" now stands on the bank. The Voyager points to the sky where the vision of an exotic dome appears to him, symbolizing the dreams and aspirations of youth.
As the Voyager enters Manhood the landscape shifts to a dramatically dark and stormy setting. The dreams of youth are replaced by the struggles of middle age. The current of the stream has become swift and the Voyager seems to have lost control of his boat. Ahead of him is a waterfall with sinister trees in the foreground. "Life's Passenger" looks toward heaven for guidance, but in the clouds lurk the demons of Suicide, Intemperance and Murder, which Cole thought were ever present in the life of man.
In the final scene, Old Age, the Voyager has navigated the Stream of Life, which has emptied into a tranquil but dark and lonely sea, lined with jagged rocks and cliffs. The boat, damaged from life's storms, reveals that time is nearly at an end for the Voyager. Only now is the Spirit Guide revealed to him, guiding him toward his final destination. Old and gray, the passenger assumes a pious pose and readies himself for his inevitable fate. A shaft of light parts the clouds, and angels descend to usher the Voyager to another life.
Earl A. Powell III. "Thomas Cole's 'Voyage of Life' in the National Gallery of Art" Magazine Antiques, January, 1997, writes:
In March 1839, following the success of his great series The Course of Empire (1834-1836; in the New-York Historical Society, New York City), Thomas Cole received his next important commission: to paint The Voyage of Life for Samuel Ward (1786-1839) who, like Cole's patron Luman Reed (1787-1836), had a gallery of paintings in his house in New York City. While The Course of Empire represented the emergence of Cole as a mature artist, The Voyage of Life was the creative enterprise that dominated his later career. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has the second version of this series; the first, completed in 1840, is in the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art in Utica, New York. The relationship between Coles two series is interesting both historically and artistically.
Samuel Ward was a deeply religious man who had modeled his domestic gallery after Reed's, but unlike Reed, Ward did not intend that Cole's series be a course of moral instruction for the public. The theme was more personal than the romantic sentiment that had inspired The Course of Empire. The four pictures in The Voyage of Life - Childhood, Youth, Manhood, and Old Age - offered a simple and conventional allegorical message [ILLUSTRATION FOR PLS. I-IV OMITTED]. The pilgrim's journey through life concludes with the promise of eternal salvation. The series resembles both John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678) and the Biblical image of the river of life. In his later years Cole became a more conventionally devout Christian, and that point of view is revealed dearly in this series. He described his intentions in the important "List" of themes and subjects that he began in 1827 and continued for many years. There he conveyed his intent to paint an
Allegory of Human Life - a series. 1st - the source of a river - issuing from a cave & a child in a boat - with a guardian Angel steering - 2nd - The child become a youth is seen in the boat...
The river tumbles over rocks - a stormy scene the boat dashes among troubled waters...
View of a dark ocean - the boat with an old man just entering on it. Chaos and darkness spread before - but through an opening in the clouds a glorious city seen.
By October 1839 Cole had begun work on Childhood and his hopes and enthusiasm for the success of the series were high. The next month he was crushed to learn that Ward had died, and he noted sadly, "There would seem almost a fatality in these commissions. Mr. Reed died without seeing his series completed. Mr. Ward died soon after his was commenced."(2) Nonetheless, Cole did complete the series, finishing the hast two pictures in November 1840 and arranging to exhibit all of them that year at the National Academy of Design in New York City.
Ward had wanted Cole to paint The Voyage of Life in the same style as The Course of Empire, and it is interesting to compare the two series. The latter is more baroque and theatrical. It was conceived as a panorama of extravagant proportions, equal to the theory of the cycle of nations which inspired it. The solitary journey of the pilgrim in The Voyage of Life is more introspective and religious. The Course of Empire reflects the passage of time from early morning to evening in the same landscape, whereas The Voyage of Life follows a time sequence corresponding to the seasons of the year. Cole's description of the series is typical of the literary and religious inspiration that motivated him and he phrase it in quintessentially romantic language. Describing Manhood he evokes a scene that might well have been inspired by the poets:
Storm and cloud enshroud a rugged and dreary landscape. Bare, impending precipices rise in the lurid light. The swollen stream rushes furiously down a dark ravine, whirling and foaming in its wild career.
In August 1841 Cole sailed for Europe, intending to paint another set of The Voyage of Life during his trip. By November of that year the opportunity was provided by George Washington Greene (1811-1883), the American consul in Rome and a Ward family cousin, who encouraged him to begin. By the spring of 1842 Cole had finished the set, and after his return from Europe he exhibited it in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. The series was engraved by James Smillie (1807-1885) after Cole's death, giving it the prestige and popular acclaim it retains today. In his funeral oration for Cole, William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) called The Voyage of Life "of simpler and less elaborate design than the Course of Empire, but more purely imaginative. The conception of the series is a perfect poem."
The Voyage of Life was well received by the critics and public alike, and Cole wanted to continue exhibiting the series after the National Academy showing, but complications with the Ward family prevented this. However, he took the precaution of taking full-sized tracings of each picture and made oil copies of all the figures so that he could duplicate the series.
In August 1841 Cole sailed for Europe, intending to paint another set of The Voyage of Life during his trip. By November of that year the opportunity was provided by George Washington Greene (1811-1883), the American consul in Rome and a Ward family cousin, who encouraged him to begin. By the spring of 1842 Cole had finished the set, and after his return from Europe he exhibited it in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. The series was engraved by James Smillie (1807-1885) after Cole's death, giving it the prestige and popular acclaim it retains today.
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