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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.

More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I, pages 95-108, which is available as a free PDF at


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.

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.


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New-York Daily Tribune (18 February 1843): 3.
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P., S.H.J. "To Thomas Cole." New Mirror 2 (27 January 1844): 269.
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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.
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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.

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