Advanced Search

The Voyage of Life: Manhood

On view

The Voyage of Life: Manhood

Artist: Thomas Cole (American, born England, 1801 - 1848)

Date: 1840
Medium: Oil on canvas
Framed: 64 x 91 x 6 1/2in. (162.6 x 231.1 x 16.5cm)
Overall: 52 x 78in. (132.1 x 198.1cm)
Signed: Lower left: 'T COLE / 1840'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 55.107
Text Entries
Cole's frames:
     The frames that currently surround the four Voyage of Life paintings are very likely not the ones Cole originally put on the pictures. The geometric, "Islamic-inspired" designs of some of the applied composition ornament in the cove of the frames suggests that they were made in the 1880s. 
     Having been commissioned by Samuel Ward Sr. to paint the series, Cole worked on them in his Catskill, New York studio. After deciding on the pictures' final dimensions he had frames fabricated for them in New York City. In a November 14, 1840 letter to Samuel Ward, Jr., Cole noted that these frames, and the other supplies he used for the series, cost $1,000, an amount that was one-fifth of the fee he received to paint all four pictures. After completing the series he shipped them to New York City and by November 18, 1840 they were united with their frames for the first time.
     The series remained with the Ward family until 1848 when they were purchased by the American Art-Union and awarded in that year's lottery to J. Taylor Brodt of Binghamton, N.Y. He sold the pictures several months later to the Rev. Gorham D. Abbot who hung them at the Spingler Institute, an educational institution he founded for young ladies at Union Square in New York City. A June 5, 1855 drawing (G. D. Abbot papers, Bowdoin College Library Archives) by an unidentified artist, shows Childhood in what appears to be French-inspired rococo style frame decorated with "gadrooning," or scallops hanging in the assembly room at the Spingler Institute. The drawing also shows corner ornaments similar in size to the ones on the Museum's frames, but without the decorative scrolls that ornament the middle of the present frames' vertical stiles and horizontal rails. It is not known whether the frame that is shown in the drawing when the pictures were hanging in the Spingler Institute is one of the four Cole originally ordered for the series, or whether it depicts a frame that was put on the picture by the American Art-Union or by Abbot. 
     The discrepancy in style between the frame shown in the Spingler Institute drawing and the frames that are currently on the pictures indicates that the Museum's frames were installed on the paintings at some point after 1855, perhaps when the pictures again changed owners. This may have taken place in the late 1860s after Abbot sold the series to J. Taylor Johnson, who exhibited them in his private gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York, at the newly-founded Metropolitan Museum of Art, or, more likely, in 1876, after a member of the Plant family of New York and Tampa, Florida purchased them from Johnson.
     The large, floral and leaf corner ornaments and the twig pattern on the present frames' leading edges are design details that began appearing in American frame design in the 1850s. The "Islamic-inspired" cove ornamentation, comprised of a geometric meander interlaced with stylized flowers and leaves, is a hallmark of American frames dating from the 1880s. The finish on the frames is not original; they were treated in the mid-1980s by Erwin Deimel, Oskar's Picture Framing, New Hartford, N.Y.


1. Eli Wilner with Mervyn Kaufman, Antique American Frames: Identification and Price Guide (New York: Avon Books, 1995), pp. 49-59.
2. Wilner, p. 98.

August 2010

Cole painted Manhood, the third picture of his allegorical series The Voyage of Life, during the summer and fall of 1840, at a time when he was having considerable difficulty getting permission from Samuel Ward’s children and from the administrator of Ward’s estate to exhibit the soon-to-be-completed series in New York City before turning them over to his former patron’s family.

In view of the differences between the finished painting of Manhood and his preliminary oil sketch (Albany Institute of History and Art) (1)—which looks more like a coast scene than a river view—it would appear that his plan for this stage of the series satisfied him less than the other three Albany oil sketches. Part of a description written by Cole for this stage of the commission, “the rapid river foams over broken rocks,”(2) indicates from the time he first conceived the series that he fully intended to continue the motif of the river in Manhood, but that it took him some time to decide how this idea should be translated into paint. At some point while he was working on the large version of Youth, however, he must have resolved the basic idea for the next picture for he included in the right background of the second picture a hint of the rapids that would form an essential feature of Manhood. And just as Cole incorporated in the second painting a view of the third picture’s impending rapids, so also did he give some hint of the ultimate goal of the voyager’s journey in Manhood by including a view of the broad ocean, which forms a principal feature of the design of Old Age.

The bright light of midday, which Cole painted as the natural equivalent of adolescent hope in Youth, was replaced in Manhood with the clouds of middle age. As the voyager stands stiffly in a rudderless boat, his plight is observed from the sky by the guardian angel and by three ghosts whom Cole identified in his published gloss on the series as the demons of Suicide, Intemperance, and Murder. Cole also notes that the “upward and imploring look of the voyager, shows his dependence on a Superior Power, and that faith saves him from the destruction that seems inevitable.”(3) The religious awakening that the voyager experiences is the dramatic and emotional turning point of the series, as well as the precondition for the salvation depicted in the fourth picture.(4)

It would appear that even after Cole completed Ward’s full-sized version he was not entirely satisfied with its appearance. In Rome during the winter of 1841-42, after he decided to paint the series again, it was this composition that he executed first and in the process made more changes than he would in any of the other pictures in the replica set (National Gallery of Art). The most important alteration, and the one that significantly improved the overall design, involved reducing the massiveness of the wall of rocks that towers over the voyager. This enabled Cole to depict a larger expanse of the distant sea as well as a more luminous sunset. He also painted an entirely different tree at the right and, as with the second version of Childhood, repositioned the voyager’s boat. In the replica it is further back in the picture and seemingly closer to the beginning of the rapids. He also altered the appearance of the voyager by giving him a heavier beard and by changing his stance in the boat so that one bent leg is supported by a bundle of worldly goods, which are missing when the boat glides out into the open sea in Old Age.



1. See fig. 12 in “The Voyage of Life” by Thomas Cole: Paintings, Drawings and Prints, exhibition catalog, with essays by Ellwood C. Parry III, Paul D. Schweizer, and Dan A. Kushel (Utica: Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, 1985).

2. “Thomas Cole’s List: ‘Subjects for Pictures,’” with comments by Howard S, Merritt, Baltimore Museum of Art Annual, vol. 2: Studies on Thomas Cole, An American Romanticist (Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1967), p. 92.

3. Thomas Cole, introduction and catalog by Howard S. Merritt (Rochester: Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, 1969), p. 36.

4. This point was made by Alan Wallach, “The Voyage of Life as Popular Art,” Art Bulletin, vol. 59 (June 1977), p. 240. Joy S. Kasson has also noted that Manhood is the emotional turning point of the series (“The Voyage of Life: Thomas Cole and Romantic Disillusionment,” American Quarterly, vol. 27 [March 1975], pp. 50-51); however, in contrast to Wallach, who sees the religious awakening that takes place in this picture as the prerequisite for the religious salvation of Old Age, Kasson believes that Manhood marks the beginning of the voyager’s doubt and disillusionment.


No known copyright restrictions.