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Reduction Copy of Thomas Cole's "The Voyage of Life: Childhood"

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Reduction Copy of Thomas Cole's "The Voyage of Life: Childhood"

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

Attributed to: James D. Smillie (American, 1833-1909)

Date: 1853
Medium: Graphite on cream-colored, medium-weight wove paper
Overall: 19 1/4 x 25 11/16in. (48.9 x 65.2cm)
Inscribed: Recto, upper right (reversed): "Don't Etch this" Lower left: "T. Cole." Bottom center: "[6?]932 / M. J. Tobias & Co." Lower right: "Commenced, May 30th 1853- / Finished June 7th [1853]" Verso, upper center: "Feb 16th 1854"
Credit Line: Gift of Descendants of the Artist: James Smillie, David Smillie and Barbara S. Curtis
Object number: 87.2.1.A
Text Entries

In March 1853, James Smillie was commissioned by Gorham D. Abbott to make large engravings of Thomas Cole’s allegorical set of paintings, The Voyage of Life (1839- 40, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute).(1) The agreement Smillie and Abbott signed included the provision that Smillie and “his son [James D. Smillie] will make only such drawings, sketches and copies as may be necessary for their own use in the work of engraving.(2) Two of the type of drawings referred to in this agreement are now in the collection of the Munson-Williams—Proctor Institute.

The Smillies occasionally used daguerreotypes to help them reduce and translate the design of an oil painting into a reproductive engraving. James D. Smillie sometimes used a camera lucida for the same reason.(3) However, the grid lines that exist on the recto of the drawing at MWPI that James D. Smillie made of The Voyage of Life: Old Age suggest that he transferred this design in the traditional way. Although no grid lines are visible on either the recto or verso of the Childhood drawing, the twenty-one-year-old Smillie probably used the same procedure to make this work.

Smillie’s meticulous copy of Cole’s large painting (six and a half feet wide) of Childhood was executed over the course of about a week in the spring of 1854, using a very sharp graphite point.(4) The finished drawing then would have been turned over and traced onto a steel plate. Sometimes this was done with the aid of another piece of paper coated with crayon, graphite, charcoal, or a thin coat of oil-based pastel. Another method was to place the drawing face down on a plate that was prepared with a soft, acid-resisting ground. Some of the graphite would transfer to the ground and provide the outline of the image to be etched and engraved.(5) Although there is no physical evidence to indicate which process the Smillies used, the date on the verso of the MWPI’s Childhood drawing suggests that the design of the sky was transferred to the plate sometime after February 16, 1854.(6) The notches in the corners of the drawing would have kept it and the plate correctly aligned. After most of the components of the transferred design were etched and engraved, the delicate job of toning the print would commence. In the Childhood drawing, the light graphite lines Smillie used to depict the distant mountains at the right replicate the atmospheric effects achieved in the engraving.


1. See Paul D. Schweizer, The Voyage of Life by Thomas Cole (Utica, N.Y.: Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, 1985), 49-50. See also Schweizer, “‘So exquisite a transcript’: James Smillie’s Engravings after Cole’s Voyage of Life,” Imprint Journal of the American Historical Print Collectors Society (part 1), 11 (Autumn 1986): 2-13; (part 2), 12 (Spring 1987): 13-24.

2. “Gorham D. Abbott With James Smillie: Agreement Relative to Engraving Voyage of Life,” March 14, 1853; autograph copy owned by James Smillie, Nutley, N.J., photocopy in curatorial files, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute.

3. Frank Weitenkarnpf, “The Evolution of Steel Engraving in America," Book Buyer 23 (September 1901): 93-95. See also Brucia Witthoft, The Fine-Arts Etching: of James David Smillie, 1833- 1909: A Catalogue Raisonne (Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), 102.

4. In the early 1850s fine pencils were manufactured in America by Henry David Thoreau; high-quality Faber pencils were imported from Germany. See Henry Petroski, The Pencil: A History of Design (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 117-22, 149-51.

5. Carol Wax, The Mezzotint: History and Technique (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990), 193-94:

6. The earliest surviving proof was printed less than two months later, on April 5. See Schweizer, “‘So exquisite a transcript" (Spring 1987): 15.


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