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The Voyage of Life: Childhood

On view

The Voyage of Life: Childhood

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

Date: 1839-1840
Medium: Oil on canvas
Framed: 65 x 91 x 6 1/2in. (165.1 x 231.1 x 16.5cm)
Overall: 52 x 78in. (132.1 x 198.1cm)
Signed: Lower left: 'T COLE' On inner face of stretcher: 'T Cole / 1839'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 55.105
Text Entries

Early in March of 1839, Thomas Cole was commissioned by the prominent New York banker and philanthropist Samuel Ward, Sr., to paint an allegorical series of four paintings entitled The Voyage of Life, the subject of which he had conceived in the fall of 1836.(1) Cole began work with great enthusiasm on the first of the series, named Childhood, in September of 1839, using as his guide a number of preliminary pencil drawings and oil sketches. Despite the unexpected death of his patron several months later, he continued working on this picture until early 1840 when it was in large measure completed.

In contrast to the numerous figures and the exotic mise-en-scene that he used in his earlier set of allegorical paintings, The Course of Empire (New-York Historical Society), (2) Cole had the good sense to realize that for a commission that would be executed on four canvases, which were to be about the same size as the largest canvas of his earlier series, the project would be less tedious if he selected a subject requiring fewer figures. His great achievement in The Voyage of Life was his synthesis of three related ideas: that life is a pilgrimage; that a person’s life can be divided into a number of distinctly identifiable stages; and that the course of a person’s life can be metaphorically compared to a journey on a river that winds its way through the landscape of time.(3) Cole invented a pictorial program that combined these three universal, but potentially complicated themes in simple terms, one that did not require as many figures as were included in The Course of Empire. Moreover, by keeping those that were required relatively small, Cole capitalized on his skills as a landscape artist while simultaneously avoiding his short- comings as a figure painter.(4)

Judging from a small ink drawing and a preparatory oil sketch that he made for Childhood (both Albany Institute of History and Art), Cole appears to have had a definite idea, when he first began planning The Voyage of Life, what Childhood should look like.(5) Of all four pictures in the series, his painting of Childhood is closest to the original idea suggested in these two preliminary works.  

In the finished painting, Cole’s infant voyager begins his journey on the river of life under the watchful eye of a guardian angel, who holds the tiller of a gilded boat that is adorned with angels and an hourglass. Cole suggested the optimism and joy of this stage of life by painting this scene in the warm and promising light of morning, and by the gesture of the child whose arms reach up to embrace an Edenic land adorned with a vast array of flowers simultaneously in bloom.

After all four paintings were completed and turned over to Samuel Ward’s heirs, Cole began to fret about their fate. Ward’s descendants appear to have lost interest in the pictures, but they were unwilling to let Cole buy them back so that he could exhibit them for the benefit of his reputation. As a result, when Cole was in Rome during the winter of 1841-42, he boldly decided to paint a second full-sized set (National Gallery of Art). The several changes he made in the design of the replica version of Childhood are best understood as representing his feelings about how he could improve upon the original composition. In the Washington version of Childhood there is a greater expanse of landscape at the right, which enabled him to show the river winding off to the horizon. He also raised the horizontal plane of the river and repositioned the gilded boat deeper in the picture and further to the left, thereby anchoring it more securely in midstream, rather than in the foreground, as it appears in the Ward composition.   


1. On March 25, 1839, Cole made a copy for himself of “the description which I gave to Mr. Ward . . . at the time he gave me the commission. The subject had been on my mind for several years and was conceived at the time my pictures of ‘The Course of Empire’ were exhibited . . . a few months after the death of Mr. Reed“ (Thomas Cole Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., reel D-6, frame 269). Yet even before Reed’s death, in such poems by Cole as his 1833 “Lines Written after a Walk on [a] Beautiful Morning in November“ (Marshall B. Tymn, ed., Thomas Cole’s Poetry [York, Penn.: Liberty Cap Books], pp. 62-65), Cole used the idea of the river as a metaphor for life. A year or two before this- probably around 1837-he wrote down in relatively quick succession the three preliminary descriptions of The Voyage of Life that appear in a sketchbook which he had begun using in 1827. (“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 Ameri- can Romanticist [Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1967], pp. 90-92.)

2. For an illustration of an installation of The Course of Empire that approximates Colels original intention, see Ellwood C. Parry III, “A Cast of Thousands,” ARTnews, vol. 82 (October 1983). p. 110.

3. The universal themes embodied in Cole‘s series are discussed in Joy  Kasson, “The Voyage of Life: Thomas Cole and Romantic Disillusionment.“ American Quarterly, vol. 27 (March 1975), pp. 42- 56; Alan Wallach, “The Voyage of Life as Popular Art,” Art Bulletin, vol. 59 (June 1977), pp. 234-41; Michael Kammen, “Changing Perceptions of the Life Cycle in American Thought and Culture," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, vol. 91 (1979), pp. 35-66

4. Cole’s early attempts at figure painting are discussed by Ellwood C. Parry III in “Thomas Cole and the Problem of Figure Painting,” American Art Journal, vol. 4 (Spring 1972), pp. 66-86.

5. See figs. 3 and 5 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).


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
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