Advanced Search

The Voyage of Life: Old Age

On view

The Voyage of Life: Old Age

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

Date: 1840
Medium: Oil on canvas
Framed: 64 1/2 x 91 x 6 1/2in. (163.8 x 231.1 x 16.5cm)
Overall: 51 3/4 x 78 1/4in. (131.4 x 198.8cm)
Signed: Lower center: "T. COLE / 1840"
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 55.108
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’s papers do not indicate when he began Old Age, the fourth and last picture of his allegorical series The Voyage of Life. By November 18, 1840, however, the picture must have been fairly well completed, for by then he had shipped the series from his studio in Catskill to New York City, where the paintings were hung in the National Academy of Design’s well-illuminated galleries so that he could paint whatever final adjustments the four pictures needed. (1)

Like his oil sketch for Youth, the preliminary design for Old Age (Albany Institute of History and Art) reveals that Cole originally intended the course of the river in this picture to flow from left to right.(2) When it came time to execute the Utica picture, however, Cole followed the pattern he had established with the second canvas by reversing the design so that the series formed two compositionally complementary pairs. While the relative absence of landscape elements in the finished version of Old Age might seem to be the result of Cole’s exhaustion as he neared the end of a year-long campaign to paint four large pictures, the Albany sketch for this canvas indicates that, from the time he first began planning Ward’s commission, he regarded the bare and forlorn landscape, which is the principal feature of this stage of the series, as an appropriate natural equivalent to the closing years of life.

Having survived the rapids of Manhood, Cole’s voyager is shown emerging from the river of life into the ocean that was first seen in the background of the third picture. In the sky at the upper left, the clouds have parted, allowing a burst of heavenly light to shine down on the aged voyager. While the apocalyptic skies that appear in the paintings and prints of the English artist John Martin may have been a source of inspiration for the sky in this picture, Cole was probably influenced as well by Rembrandt’s etching The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds, an impression of which captured his attention at the British Museum during his first trip to London.(3)

For the first time in the series, Cole has shown the voyager facing his guardian angel. With one hand, the angel makes a gesture of benediction, similar to the one that appeared in Childhood, and with the other hand points to the host of angels descending from the sky. In what may be an attempt to underscore the voyager’s imminent passage to immortal life,(4) Cole painted the voyager’s boat without the angel and hourglass at the bow. When he painted this boat again in his second full-sized version (National Gallery of Art), Cole repeated this detail and, additionally, omitted the volute at the boat’s stern. He also made changes in the arrangement of the rocks in the picture’s fore- and middle grounds, and repositioned the voyager’s right hand so that instead of touching his chest with his fingers, as it appears in the Utica picture, the palm of his hand is turned outward toward the heavenly light.



1. “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), pp. 16, 18.

2. See fig. 17 in “The Voyage ofLife” by Thomas Cole: Paintings, Drawings and Prints.

3. Ellwood C. Parry III, “Thomas Cole and the Problem of Figure Painting,” American Art Journal, vol. 4. (Spring 1972), p. 79.

4. Both Walter N. Nathan (“Thomas Cole and the Romantic Landscape," Romanticism in America [New York: Russell & Russell, 1961], p. 54) and Joy S. Kasson (“The Voyage of Life: Thomas Cole and Romantic Disillusionment,” American Quarterly, vol. 27 [March 1975], pp. 50-51) feel that the basic message of the series is joyless and disheartening. This reading seems incorrect, given the optimistic interpretation Cole himself provided for Old Age in both his published description of the last picture (Thomas Cole, introduction and catalog by Howard S. Merritt [Rochester: Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, 1969], p. 37) and in the concluding stanzas of his 1844 poem “The Voyage of Life” (Marshall B. Tymn, ed., Thomas Cole’s Poetry [York, Penn.: Liberty Cap Books, 1972] pp. 159-60).


No known copyright restrictions.