Thomas Cole

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Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas


The Voyage of Life series is an allegory of the four stages of man: childhood, youth, manhood, and old age. In each painting, accompanied by a guardian angel, the voyager rides in a boat on the River of Life. The landscape, corresponding to the seasons of the year, plays a major role in telling the story. In childhood, the infant glides from a dark cave into a rich, green landscape. As a youth, the boy takes control of the boat and aims for a shining castle in the sky. The last two pictures reverse the boat's direction. In manhood, the adult relies on prayer and religious faith to sustain him through rough waters and a threatening landscape. Finally, the man becomes old and the angel guides him to heaven across the waters of eternity.

The wild, untamed nature found in America was viewed as its special character; Europe had ancient ruins, but America had the uncharted wilderness. As his friend William Cullen Bryant sermonized in verse, so Cole sermonized in paint. Both men saw nature as God's work and as a refuge from the ugly materialism of cities. Cole clearly intended the Voyage of Life to be a didactic, moralizing series of paintings using the landscape as an allegory for religious faith.

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