Thomas Cole’s four-part masterpiece, The Voyage of Life, has come to serve as the gateway to the American collections. Consisting of Childhood (fig. 5), Youth, Manhood, and Old Age, his imaginary landscape allegory is deeply rooted in biblical sources as well as in American and British poetry and literature of the romantic era, and it is considered one of the most important and original achievements of his career. The first version of the series, now in the collection of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York, was commissioned in 1839 by a New York banker, Samuel Ward. When Ward died before the commission was completed, a dispute arose as to whether Cole had a right to exhibit the works publicly before delivering them to the Ward family. Cole eventually decided to paint a duplicate set while in Europe, which he completed and exhibited in Rome in 1842. Following his return to the United States, Cole sold this set to a Cincinnati collector. When Cole suddenly died in 1848, the original version was purchased by the American Art-Union, which succeeded in making it one of the most famous American works of the nineteenth century by distributing the series by lottery and arranging for the distribution of 20,000 prints of Youth. The second version was eventually purchased by the National Gallery in 1971 with support from the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund. Other works by Cole to enter the collections more recently include Sunrise in the Catskills in 1989 (gift of Mrs. John D. Rockfeller 3rd, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the National Gallery of Art) and Italian Coast Scene with Ruined Tower (gift of The Circle of the National Gallery of Art) in 1993.
Following this room devoted to Cole, the most influential landscape painter in the United States in the early nineteenth century, is a gallery devoted to Gilbert Stuart, the most accomplished American portraitist of Federal America. Chief among the Stuart works is the Gibbs-Coolidge set of presidential portraits consisting of iconic images of the first five presidents of the United States. The only surviving set of its kind, it was commissioned by George Gibbs, an amateur geologist from Rhode Island and founder of the American Journal of Science. More than a century after the group was purchased from the Gibbs family by Thomas Jefferson Coolidge in 1872, Coolidge’s great-grandson and namesake bequeathed the Washington and Jefferson portraits to the Gallery. The remaining three paintings in the set were acquired through the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund. Beginning with Andrew Mellon’s initial gift in 1941, the number of works by Stuart in the American collection has grown steadily to forty-two, more than those any other artist except George Catlin.