The Voyage of Life series, painted by Thomas Cole in 1842, is a series of paintings that represent an allegory of the four stages of human life: childhood, youth, manhood, and old age.
In the first painting, Childhood, all the important story elements of the series are introduced: the voyager, the angel, the river, and the expressive landscape. An infant is safely ensconced in a boat guided by an angel. The landscape is lush; everything is calm and basking in warm sunshine, reflecting the innocence and joy of childhood. The boat glides out of a dark, craggy cave which Cole himself described as “emblematic of our earthly origin, and the mysterious Past.” The river is smooth and narrow, symbolizing the sheltered experience of childhood. The figurehead on the prow holds an hourglass representing time.
The second painting, Youth, shows the same rich, green landscape, but here the view widens as does the voyager’s experience. Now the youth grabs the tiller firmly as the angel watches and waves from the shore, allowing him to take control. The boy’s enthusiasm and energy is evident in his forward-thrusting pose and billowing clothes. In the distance, a ghostly castle hovers in the sky, a white and shimmering beacon that represents the ambitions and dreams of man.
To the youth, the calm river seems to lead straight to the castle, but at the far right of the painting one can just glimpse the river as it becomes rough, choppy, and full of rocks. Cole comments on the landscape and the youth’s ambitions: “The scenery of the picture–its clear stream, its lofty trees, its towering mountains, its unbounded distance, and transparent atmosphere–figure forth the romantic beauty of youthful imaginings, when the mind elevates the Mean and Common into the Magnificent, before experience teaches what is the Real.”
In the next painting, Manhood, the youth has grown into an adult and now faces the trials of life. The boat is damaged and the tiller is gone. The river has become a terrible rush of white water with menacing rocks, dangerous whirlpools, and surging currents. The warm sunlight of youth has been clouded over with dark and stormy skies and torrential rains. The trees have become wind-beaten, gnarled, leafless trunks. The fresh grass is gone, replaced by hard and unforgiving rock.
In the boat, the man no longer displays confidence or even control. The angel appears high in the sky, still watching over the man, who does not see the angel. Man must rely on his faith that the angel is there to help him. Cole states, “Trouble is characteristic of the period of Manhood. In childhood, there is no carking care: in youth, no despairing thought. It is only when experience has taught us the realities of the world, that we lift from our eyes the golden veil of early life; that we feel deep and abiding sorrow: and in the Picture, the gloomy, eclipse-like tone, the conflicting elements, the trees riven by tempest, are the allegory; and the Ocean, dimly seen, figures the end of life, which the Voyager is now approaching.”
Within the painting Manhood there is a strong emphasis on the diagonal: in the rocks which jut up, steep and forbidding, and the river which sweeps downward, threatening to carry anything in or on it over the precipitous drop to the twisting and foaming rapids in the mid-ground. The extreme narrowness of the passage between the two rock face heightens the tension as the viewer tries to determine whether or not a small craft could navigate these tumultuous waters. In addition, evil spirits stare down from the dark clouds above.
It is only in the distant background that the viewer captures a glimpse of the horizon. This line, where the distant ocean meets the sunset colored sky, is the only horizontal line in the painting. Amidst the chaos and confusion of the wild scene in the foreground, one catches a glimpse of possible serenity. Cole has positioned this focal point just below and to the right of center. The combination of the lone horizontal and warm color in an otherwise dark and forbidding scene, beckons the viewer’s eye back again and again.
The silhouette of a gnarled tree trunk opposes the diagonals of the rocks and river, forcing the eye back into the scene. Here the twisted and rotting trunk is used, as it often is in Cole’s work, as a symbol for the savage (untamed) wilderness and all its dangers. The funnel-shaped cloud that appears above the tree leads the eye up into the forbidding clouds of the sky, over the top and to the left, where the downward arc of the clouds forces it back down again into the river.
The final painting, Old Age, is an image of death. The man has grown old; he has survived the trials of life. The waters have calmed; the river flows into the waters of eternity. The figurehead and hourglass are missing from the battered boat; the withered old voyager has reached the end of earthly time. In the distance, angels are descending from heaven, while the guardian angel hovers close, gesturing toward the others. The man is once again joyous with the knowledge that faith has sustained him through life. The landscape is practically gone, just a few rough rocks represent the edge of the earthly world, and dark water stretches onward. Cole describes the scene: “The chains of corporeal existence are falling away; and already the mind has glimpses of Immortal Life.”