Hanging in the US National Gallery of Art in Washington DC is a series of four paintings by Thomas Cole. The series is called “The Voyage of Life”. Thomas Cole painted them in 1842. The paintings represent an allegory of the four stages of human life: childhood, youth, manhood, and old age. The paintings follow a voyager who travels in a boat on a river through the mid-19th-century American wilderness. In each painting, accompanied by a guardian angel, the voyager rides the boat on the River of Life. The landscape, corresponding to the seasons of the year, plays a major role in telling the story. In each picture, the boat’s direction of travel is reversed from the previous picture.
The first painting is of childhood. It shows a mountain with a dark cave at its base and a river flowing out of the cave. A beautiful timber boat glides out of the cave into a world of lush vegetation, flowers in bloom and a peaceful, gentle surface on the water. Inside the boat is a laughing baby with a Guardian Spirit standing right behind. The painting shows childhood as a time of wonder and joy.
Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life: Childhood: The boat, child, and angel on the water.( wikipedia)
The second painting is called “youth”. We see the same boat now travelled further downstream. The baby has grown into a teenage boy. He stands in the rear, confidently steering the boat towards a majestic white castle off in the distance. The riverbanks are still lush and green and the Guardian Spirit stands on those banks, watching the young man boldly chart his course. The painting shows youth as a time of dreaming and absolute self confidence that nothing can hold me back.
Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life: Youth: shows the boy departing in the boat; the angel bids him farewell from the shore.( wikipedia)
Looking at the third painting the scene has changed dramatically. The youth has become a man, the river has become a raging torrent, and the sky has become dark and threatening. The castle of dreams is nowhere to be seen and the boat’s rudder has broken. Up ahead lies treacherous rocks, with white water crashing all around them. The man in the boat is caught up by forces he can’t control. With the rudder broken he cannot steer his boat. All he can do is look up to the sky and pray. Meanwhile the Guardian Spirit sits hidden in the clouds. Cole is picturing adulthood as a time when the joy and wonder of childhood have been tamed by the difficult and tragic experiences of life, when the confidence and boldness of youth have been swept away by the harsh realities of life.
Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life: Manhood: God is depicted in the clouds.
The final painting is called “Old Age”. The battered and weathered boat has finally reached the ocean. The dark clouds remain but the water is still. The boat’s occupant is now an old man, and his gaze is fixed firmly on the clouds out there in front of him, clouds pierced by the glorious light of heaven, the light pierced by angels coming to and fro. For the first time in his life the man sees the Guardian Spirit that has accompanied him on his journey. It comes, takes him by the hand and prepares him for his journey into the heavens.
Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life: Old Age: The man in the boat with the angel.