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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.


lower left: 1842 / T. Cole / Rome


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
Annual Exhibition of Modern Artists, Piazza del Popolo, Rome, 1842, no cat.
Private Exhibition, Luther Terry's studio, Orto di Napoli, Rome, 1842.
Pictures by Thomas Cole N.A. ... The Voyage of Life! A Series of Allegorical Pictures, National Academy of Design, New York, 1843-1844, no. 1.
Second Exhibition, Boston Artists' Association, 1843, no. 1.
Paintings Exhibited..., Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1844, no. 1.
Western Art Union, Cincinnati, 1848, no cat.
Pictures at the Ladies' Gallery, Cincinnati, 1854, 2 and 5, no. 20, as Infancy.
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. 25, repro.
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. 33.
Thomas Cole: Landscape into History, National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford; The Brooklyn Museum, 1994-1995, fig. 115.
Loan for display with permanent collection, The Detroit Institute of Arts, 1995-1996.
Explorar el Edén: Paisaje Americano del Siglo XIX, Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, 2000-2001, no. 2, repro.
"Cole's Pictures at the National Academy of Design." Anglo American (30 December 1843): 239.
"Dottings on Art and Artists. No. II." New World 6 (25 February 1843): 246.
"Mr. Cole's Paintings." New-York Daily Tribune (26 December 1843): 2.
New-York Daily Tribune (18 February 1843): 3.
"A Few Words About Mr. Cole's Paintings." New World 8 (17 February 1844): 217.
"Cole's Paintings." New-York Daily Tribune (9 January 1844): 2.
"Editor's Table." The Knickerbocker 23 (January/February 1844): 97, 196.
P., S.H.J. "To Thomas Cole." New Mirror 2 (27 January 1844): 269.
Transactions of the Western Art Union for the Year 1847. Cincinnati, 1847: 25.
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.
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.
Lanman, Charles. "The Epic Paintings of Thomas Cole." Southern Library Messenger 15 (June 1849): 353.
Transactions of the Western Art Union for the Year 1848. Cincinnati, 1849: 10.
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.
"Thomas Cole." National Magazine 4 (April 1854): 318-321.
"Sketchings." The Crayon 1 (7 February 1855): 92.
"Notes and Gleanings--Cole's Pictures of Life." National Magazine 13 (September 1858): 284-285.
Green, George W. Biographical Sketches. New York, 1860: 101, 105, 110-112.
"The Artists of America--Taken from New American Cyclopaedia." The Crayon 7 (February 1860): 46.
Cummings, Thomas S. Historic Annals of the National Academy of Design (1825-1863). Philadelphia, 1865. Reprint, New York, 1965: 170, 176, 201.
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.
La Budde, Kenneth James. "The Mind of Thomas Cole." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1954: 171, 212.
Devane, James. "Sightseers Have Visited Scarlet Oaks for 95 Years." Cincinnati Enquirer (20 May 1962): 6A.
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.
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.
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.
Riordan, John. "Thomas Cole: A Case Study of the Painter-Poet Theory ofArt in American Painting from 1825-1850." 2 vols. Ph.D. dissertation, Syracuse University, 1970: 1:99-100; 2:345, 455-497.
Wallach, Alan Peter. "The Ideal American Artist and the Dissenting Tradition: A Study of Thomas Cole's Popular Reputation." Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, New York, 1973: 70-72, 106.
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. dissertation, Ohio University, Athens, 1976: 105-109, 172, repro. 227.
Wallach, Alan. "The Voyage of Life as Popular Art." The Art Bulletin 59 (1957): 234.
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 133, repro.
Coen, Rena N. "Cole, Coleridge and Kubla Khan." Art History 3 (June 1980): 218, 227, pl. 31.
Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 11, 14, 88, repro. 88.
Virdis, Caterina Limentani. "Paesaggio e racconto in Edgar Allan Poe." Artibus et Historiae 4 (1981): 90, 94, repro. 89.
Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: color repro. 96, 112-113.
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.
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.
Sarnoff, Charles A. "The Voyage of Life Had a Life of Its Own." Paper presented to the NGA, January 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.
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.
Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 11, 17, 102, 103, repro. 102.
Powell, Earl A., III. Thomas Cole. New York, 1990: 103.
Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 261, 263, color repro.
Wilmerding, John. American Views: Essays on American Art. Princeton, 1991: 56, 67, repro. 57.
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 145, repro.
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. 115.
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. 26.
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.
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.
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 308-310, no. 247, color repros.
"Rethinking 'Luminism': Taste, Class, and Aestheticizing Tendencies in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Painting." In The Cultured Canvas: New Perspectives on American Landscape Painting edited by Nancy Siegel. Lebanon, N.H., 2012: 133-134.
Corbett, David Peters. "Painting American Frontiers: 'Encounter' and the Borders of American Identity in Nineteenth-Century Art." Perspective 2013, no. 1: 140, 141, color fig. 9.
Technical Summary

Secondary ground layers include red under the top left corner; yellow under the boat and angel; red under the center in the light area of mountain; red under top right corner in the light area of sky; red under the water around the boat. Infrared reflectography reveals some underdrawing of mountain contours in the right middle and far distance. There are scattered small losses along the edges, a small loss below the boat, 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.

Explore This Work

...he wished his canvases at the same moment to speak a language eloquent of God and man, and human life.

Louis Noble, Thomas Cole’s spiritual advisor and mentor

Thomas Cole believed landscape paintings could impart moral and religious values. Although he achieved considerable success from his straightforward depictions of American scenery, his greater ambition was to convey the word of God through sublime landscapes. 

Cole’s four-part allegorical series, The Voyage of Life, was not his first ideological work. After traveling to Europe where he studied British history painting and works by old masters, Cole returned to New York and painted the large work, Angel Appearing to the Shepherds (1833–1834), and the five-canvas series, the Course of Empire (1833–1836). While the paintings garnered popular attention and favorable reviews, however, Cole feared that the messages of these works were not evident to viewers.

In the The Voyage of Life, Cole made several adaptations to make his moral and religious messages more clear. In contrast to the Course of Empire’s grand, panoramic scenes of nature and architecture, flush with details and incidents, Cole painted The Voyage of Life in a simplified style. He focused his story by painting the unfolding life of one man, as opposed to the complicated rise and fall of a nation. To further his interpretation of the series’ symbolic imagery, Cole wrote explanatory texts to accompany each painting. The texts effectively served as a reading companion for the viewers.

The Voyage of Life traces a pilgrim’s journey along the "River of Life.” In “Childhood” a golden boat emerges from a darkened cave—a mysterious earthly source—from which a joyous infant reaches out to the world with wonder and naivete. Rose light bathes the scene of fertile beauty as an angelic figure guides the boat forward.

In “Youth,” the voyager confidently assumes control at the helm of the boat. Oblivious to the increasing turbulence and unexpected twists of the stream, the pilgrim boldly strives to reach an aerial castle, emblematic of adolescent ambition for fame and glory.

Nature's fury, evil demons, and self-doubt threaten the voyager in the next painting, “Manhood.” As Cole said, “The helm of the boat is gone”; the voyager has lost control of his life. The angel looks down from the clouds as he is whirled toward violent rapids and bare, fractured rocks. Only divine intervention, Cole suggests, can save the voyager from a tragic fate.

In the series’ last painting, “Old Age,” the stream of life has reached the ocean of eternity where the voyager floats aboard his broken, weathered vessel. All signs of nature and “corporeal existence” are cast aside. The guardian angel, whom he sees for the first time, directs his gaze toward a beckoning, soft light emerging from the parting clouds—the vision of eternal life.

From the innocence of childhood to the flush of youthful confidence, through the trials of middle age and finally, to divine salvation, The Voyage of Life evokes the Christian doctrine of death and resurrection. Cole's intrepid voyager can also be interpreted as a personification of America—a country at its own adolescent stage of development.

About the Artist

Thomas Cole, considered the founder of the Hudson River School of American landscape painters, was born on February 1, 1801, in Bolton-le-Moor, England. Before emigrating with his family to the United States in 1818, he served as an engraver's assistant and as an apprentice to a calico print designer. While living in Steubenville, Ohio, Cole learned the basics of oil painting from an itinerant portrait painter. In 1823 he began experimenting with drawing from nature, creating detailed and expressive images of trees and branches. Later that year he moved to Philadelphia to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

In April 1825 Cole moved to New York City, and shortly thereafter began making extensive sketching trips up the Hudson River and into the Catskill Mountains. In late October 1825, three of his landscapes were purchased by prominent figures in the young nation's art community: John Trumbull (1756–1843), William Dunlap (1766–1839), and Asher B. Durand (1796–1886).

Cole had numerous commissions in the late 1820s to paint his famed views of American landscapes. But with his ambition to paint a “higher style of landscape” to communicate his beliefs and values, Cole began painting large allegorical works, such as the five-canvas series Course of Empire (New-York Historical Society). During this period, William Dunlap’s 1834 A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States pronounced Cole “one of the finest painters in landscape...that the world possesses.”

Cole continued to paint American landscapes in the 1830s and 1840s, but much of his energy was focused on creating complex imaginary works, including Departure and Return (1837, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and The Voyage of Life (1839–1840, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica, and 1842, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).

Cole actually painted two versions of the Voyage of Life. After the first set was restricted from public view by the owners, Cole painted a duplicate set, which he exhibited from 1843–1844 in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities. The second set, owned by the National Gallery of Art, received much acclaim after James Smillie produced and distributed engravings of the series.

Following Cole’s death in 1848 at age 47, a comprehensive memorial exhibition of his works was held in at the American Art-Union in New York. Close to 500,000 people (equivalent to half the population of New York City at the time) came to see the exhibition. Cole’s influence on the course of American landscape painting was profound and his works influenced numerous younger painters who matured in the late 1840s and early 1850s, most notably Jasper F. Cropsey and Frederic Edwin Church.