Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Voyage of Life" by Thomas Cole (1842)

Thomas Cole was an American landscape painter of the 1800's. His best works were done in the 1840's. Born in 1801 he lived a short life. He was only 47 when he died in 1848.

His most famous work; a series of 4 paintings; is called "Voyage of Life." They are so good that he was commissioned to do a second set- identical to the first. One set remains in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the other is housed in NY but is constantly on tour somewhere.

Examine the drawings in order and a story emerges of the struggle we all endure to get through this crazy thing called life.

In the first painting, “Childhood", you see the man as a baby, swaddled in the boat with his Guardian Angel at the tiller, guiding him from the mouth of the cave, as if just being delivered from his mother’s womb. The landscape is verdant and ripe with the promise of the future and growth. The hourglass at the bow is full with sand and time is of no concern. His whole life is before him.

The second painting, "Youth", shows the boy at the tiller and the Guardian Angel is stepping off and bidding him Godspeed as he sets out on his own course. Notice the beautiful and illusionary castle in the background. The boy is heading for that dreamlike goal. (Aren't we all?)The waters are calm and the sands are still abundant in the hourglass. The boy is filled with confidence in his future.

In the third painting, "Manhood", we see the boy as a middle aged man, filled with tribulations and at the mercy of the elements. He thinks his God has forsaken him as the angry clouds blow foul weather upon his dreams. The tiller is broken and the Sands of Time in the hourglass at the bow are drawing low. He is supplicating himself to a Higher Power, seeking to change what he now perceives to be his fate. In the background you see the glow of his Guardian Angel, who still watches over him, though the man cannot see this.

In the fourth and final painting, "Old Age", he is resigned to his fate. He is no longer struggling to reach an illusionary goal. The tiller has broken off; he is no longer the Master of his own fate. The Sands of Time have run completely out. The seas have calmed and the winds abated. The Guardian Angel has returned to lead him to the Light and his Eternal Reward.

With his use of light and symbolism Thomas Cole’s works come to life. The story told in these 4 paintings is universal. They reflect what we all endure, in different ways, on our own "Voyage of Life."

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