Overview

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 nature.

Inscription

lower left: Rome / 1842 / T. Cole

Marks and Labels

null

Provenance

Sold by the artist to George K. Shoenberger [1809-1892], Cincinnati, perhaps as early as 1845 and no later than May 1846;[1] Shoenberger heirs, after 20 January 1892;[2] purchased 1908 by Ernst H. Huenefeld, Cincinnati;[3] gift 1908 to Bethesda Hospital and Deaconess Association of Methodist Church of Cincinnati;[4] sold 17 May 1971 through (Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York) to NGA.

Exhibition History

1842
Annual Exhibition of Modern Artists, Piazza del Popolo, Rome, 1842, no cat.
1842
Private Exhibition, Luther Terry's studio, Orto di Napoli, Rome, 1842.
1843
Pictures by Thomas Cole N.A. ... The Voyage of Life! A Series of Allegorical Pictures, National Academy of Design, New York, 1843-1844, no. 2.
1843
Second Exhibition, Boston Artists' Association, 1843, no. 2.
1844
Paintings Exhibited..., Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1844, no. 2.
1848
Western Art Union, Cincinnati, 1848, no cat.
1854
Pictures at the Ladies' Gallery, Cincinnati, 1854, 2 and 5, no. 21, as Youth.
1983
A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting 1760-1910, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Grand Palais, Paris, 1983-1984, no. 26, repro.
1985
The Voyage of Life by Thomas Cole, Paintings, Drawings, and Prints, Museum of Art, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York, 1985, 4, 5, 28, 30-32, 34-36, 38-40, 42, 44, 45, 48, 53, 66-69, no. 38.
1994
Thomas Cole: Landscape into History, National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford; The Brooklyn Museum, 1994-1995, fig. 116.
1995
Loan for display with permanent collection, The Detroit Institute of Arts, 1995-1996.
2000
Explorar el Edén: Paisaje Americano del Siglo XIX, Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, 2000-2001, no. 3, repro.

Bibliography

1843
"Cole's Pictures at the National Academy of Design." Anglo American (30 December 1843): 239.
1843
"Dottings on Art and Artists. No. II." New World 6 (25 February 1843): 246.
1843
"Mr. Cole's Paintings." New-York Daily Tribune (26 December 1843): 2.
1843
New-York Daily Tribune (18 February 1843): 3.
1844
"A Few Words About Mr. Cole's Paintings." New World 8 (17 February 1844): 217.
1844
"Cole's Paintings." New-York Daily Tribune (9 January 1844): 2.
1844
"Editor's Table." The Knickerbocker 23 (January/February 1844): 97, 196.
1844
P., S.H.J. "To Thomas Cole." New Mirror 2 (27 January 1844): 269.
1847
Transactions of the Western Art Union for the Year 1847. Cincinnati, 1847: 25.
1848
Bryant, William Cullen. A Funeral Oration, occasioned by the death of Thomas Cole delivered before the National Academy of Design, New York, May 4, 1848. Philadelphia and New York, 1848: 30.
1848
Whitley, Thomas W. Reflections on the Government of the Western Art Union and a Review of the Works of Art on Its Walls. [Originally published in the Herald of Truth] Cincinnati, 1848: 17-18.
1849
Lanman, Charles. "The Epic Paintings of Thomas Cole." Southern Library Messenger 15 (June 1849): 353.
1849
Transactions of the Western Art Union for the Year 1848. Cincinnati, 1849: 10.
1853
Noble, Louis Legrand. The Course of Empire, Voyage of Life, and other Pictures of Thomas Cole, N.A.. New York, 1853: 295-298, 301, 309, 312-314, 317, 320-322, 353, 359.
1854
"Thomas Cole." National Magazine 4 (April 1854): 318-321.
1855
"Sketchings." The Crayon 1 (7 February 1855): 92.
1858
"Notes and Gleanings--Cole's Pictures of Life." National Magazine 13 (September 1858): 284-285.
1860
Green, George W. Biographical Sketches. New York, 1860: 101, 105, 110-112.
1860
"The Artists of America--Taken from New American Cyclopaedia." The Crayon 7 (February 1860): 46.
1865
Cummings, Thomas S. Historic Annals of the National Academy of Design (1825-1863). Philadelphia, 1865. Reprint, New York, 1965: 170, 176, 201.
1932
Mayer, Frank Blackwell. With Pen and Pencil on the Frontier in 1851: The Diary and Sketches of Frank Blackwell Mayer. Edited by Bertha L. Heilbron. Reprint, Saint Paul, 1932: 41.
1954
La Budde, Kenneth James. "The Mind of Thomas Cole." Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, 1954: 171, 212.
1962
Devane, James. "Sightseers Have Visited Scarlet Oaks for 95 Years." Cincinnati Enquirer (20 May 1962): 6A.
1964
Noble, Louis Legrand. The Life and Works of Thomas Cole (1853). Edited by Elliot S. Vesell. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1964: 220-224, 231, 233-235, 237, 239-240, 264.
1967
Dwight, Edward H., and Richard J. Boyle. "Rediscovery: Thomas Cole's 'Voyage of Life'." L'Art et les Artistes 55 (May 1967): 60-63, repro. 62, repro. detail 63.
1967
Merritt, Howard S. "Thomas Cole's List, 'Subjects for Pictures.'" In Baltimore Museum of Art, Annual II: Studies on Thomas Cole, an American Romanticist. Baltimore, 1967: 84, 90.
1970
Riordan, John. "Thomas Cole: A Case Study of the Painter-Poet Theory ofArt in American Painting from 1825-1850." 2 vols. Ph.D. diss., Syracuse University, 1970: 1:99-100; 2:345, 455-497.
1973
Wallach, Alan Peter. "The Ideal American Artist and the Dissenting Tradition: A Study of Thomas Cole's Popular Reputation." Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1973: 70-72, 106.
1976
Kurland, Sydney. "The Aesthetic Quest of Thomas Cole and Edgar Allan Poe: Correspondence in their Thought and Practice in Relation to their Time." Ph.D. diss., Ohio University, 1976: 105-109, 172, repro. 227.
1977
Wallach, Alan. "The Voyage of Life as Popular Art." The Art Bulletin 59 (1957): 234.
1979
Watson, Ross. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1979: 106, pl. 93.
1980
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 133, repro.
1980
Coen, Rena N. "Cole, Coleridge and Kubla Khan." Art History 3 (June 1980): 218, 227, pl. 32.
1980
Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 11, 14, no. 25, color repro.
1981
Virdis, Caterina Limentani. "Paesaggio e racconto in Edgar Allan Poe." Artibus et Historiae 4 (1981): 90, 94, repro. 90.
1981
Williams 1981, color repro. 96, 112-113.
1983
Schweizer, Paul D. "Another Possible Literary Source for Thomas Cole's Voyage of Life." In "New Discoveries in American Art." Edited by Jayne A. Kuchina. The American Art Journal 15 (1983): 74-75.
1985
The Voyage of Life by Thomas Cole, Paintings, Drawings, and Prints. Exh. cat. Museum of Art, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York, 1985: 66-69.
1987
Sarnoff, Charles A. "The Voyage of Life Had a Life of Its Own." Paper presented to the NGA, January 1987.
1987
Wilmerding, John. American Marine Painting. Rev. ed. of A History of American Marine Painting, 1968. New York, 1987: 44, 46, 47, color repro. 42.
1988
Parry, Ellwood C., III. The Art of Thomas Cole: Ambition and Imagination. Newark, Delaware, 1988: 218, 228, 265-268, 270-272, 275, 277, 280, 284-285, 291-298, 301-303, 332, 338, 378.
1988
Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 11, 17, 102, 103, no. 28, color repro.
1990
Powell, Earl A., III. Thomas Cole. New York, 1990: 103.
1991
Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 263.
1991
Wilmerding, John. American Views: Essays on American Art. Princeton, 1991: 56, 67, repro. 58.
1992
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 146, repro.
1992
National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 231, repro.
1994
Craven, Wayne. American Art: History and Culture. New York, 1994: 202-203, color fig. 15.5.
1994
Truettner, William H., and Alan Wallach. Thomas Cole: Landscape into History. Exh. cat. Natl. Mus. of Am. Art, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford; Brooklyn Museum. Washington,1994: 42,46-47,79,82,84,98-101,113,130-133,138,144,149-150,152,154,182, no. 116.
1995
Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane. The Spirit and the Vision: The Influence of Christian Romanticism on the Development of 19th-Century American Art. Atlanta, 1995: 137-148, fig. 27.
1996
Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 95-108, color repro.
1998
Boeckl, Christine M. “Path/Road/Crossroads." In Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art. Edited by Helene E. Roberts. 2 vols. Chicago, 1998: 2:692.
2004
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 308, 310, no. 248, color repro.

Technical Summary

Secondary ground layers include yellow under the boat and surrounding area; red under the sky across the top. Infrared reflectography reveals underdrawing of the central mountain peak, the castle/temple, and aura. A tear in the upper center of the sky has been repaired. There is abrasion along the lower edges, scattered losses along the edges, and craquelure throughout.

All four paintings in The Voyage of Life series were executed on herringbone twill fabric with moderately fine threads and a moderately rough surface. The paintings were lined (apparently for the first time) and the original panel-back stretchers were replaced during treatment in 1970-1971. The presence of unused tack holes and the pattern of wear on the canvas edges suggest that the paintings were originally stretched and painted on slightly larger stretchers, and then restretched by the artist on the panel-backed stretchers. All four paintings have white ground layers; in specific areas of each painting (see individual comments, below) secondary ground layers of different colors were applied. Infrared reflectography reveals only minimal underdrawing. Paint was applied moderately thinly and with low and broad brushstrokes in some areas such as the skies, and more thickly and with some high impasto in details such as the figures and foliage. In general, the paintings are in excellent condition, with only scattered small losses, some craquelure, and minor abrasion. In 1970-1971, discolored varnish was removed and the paintings were restored.

Related Content

Related Works

Related Resources

  • Event Type
    Event Name
    March 1–June 1
    Mon, Tues, and Wed at 1:00
    March 5, 2012 at 2:00
    March 7, 2012 at 4:00
    East Building, Auditorium
    Name of docent
    image:
    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum
    60 minutes
    Registration for this event begins on April 1, 2012 at noon.
    Download the program notes (100k)
  • Self-Guided Tour
    Italian Collection
    image:
    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum