Thomas Cole's Voyage of Life

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This richly illustrated catalog explores Thomas Cole's allegorical series of four paintings, The Voyage of Life, examining the influence it exerted on American culture, and telling the remarkable story behind its creation and fascinating 175-year history.

Paul Schweizer

In 1839 the prominent New York banker and philanthropist Samuel Ward Sr. commissioned Thomas Cole to paint an allegorical series of four paintings titled The Voyage of Life, the subject of which he had conceived in the fall of 1836.

Cole's great achievement in The Voyage of Life was his synthesis of three related ideas: life is a pilgrimage; a person's life can be divided into four distinct stages; and the course of a person's life can be metaphorically compared to a journey on a river that winds its way through a magical landscape. Cole invented a program that combined these three universal themes in simple pictorial terms.

Despite the unexpected death of Ward several months after Cole began the series, he completed the four paintings in 1840. Difficulties with Ward's heirs prompted Cole to paint a second full-size set in Rome, NY during the winter of 1841–1842. The second set of paintings is now at the National Gallery of Art.

This richly illustrated catalog explores the deeper meaning of the imagery, examines the influence the series exerted on American culture, and tells the remarkable story behind the creation of the four paintings and their fascinating 175-year history.

  • Softcover
  • 11.5 x 9.5 inches
  • 73 pages
  • Published: 2014

Art Style American