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The Voyage of Life: Childhood

Not on view

The Voyage of Life: Childhood

Date: n.d.a.
Medium: Albumen print mounted on cardboard
Overall: 2 7/16 x 4in. (6.2 x 10.2cm)
Image: 2 1/4 x 3 7/16in. (5.7 x 8.7cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 2002.6.1
Label Text
Cole's Voyage of Life Had a Voyage of Its Own

These recently acquired photographs of Thomas Cole's allegorical series, The Voyage of Life, were probably made in the 1870s or 1880s. They are not reproductions of the original paintings, which are also displayed in this gallery but, instead, were made from the four engravings that James Smillie and his son, James D. Smillie, produced in the 1850s after the original paintings.

Small photographs such as these are known as cartes de visite. In the mid-19th century a Frenchman, Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, invented a process whereby eight to ten photographs were simultaneously made on one plate. The resultant paper prints were then cut up and mounted on slightly larger cards. They are usually albumen prints, although other photographic processes were also used. Most cartes de visite are portraits of famous public figures; reproductions of artworks are quite rare.

When Smillies' engravings were made, The Voyage of Life paintings were hanging at the Rev. Gorham D. Abbot's Spingler Institute, an educational institution for young women at Union Square in New York City. By 1867 the paintings were owned by railroad executive J. Taylor Johnson. His collection of European and American art hung in a private gallery at his Fifth Avenue mansion in Manhattan. As the first president of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Johnson also displayed Cole's paintings in the mid-1870s at the newly founded museum. Then, in 1876, because of business reversals, Johnson sold his collection and a member of the Plant family of New York acquired the series.

In is unclear why these cartes de visite reproduce Smillies' engravings rather than the original paintings. It is certainly possible that either Johnson or the Plant family member that owned the series simply refused to let them be photographed. It is also feasible--because of the colors that Cole used in the series, especially the greens which are notoriously difficult to photograph, and the tonal range of the pigments in the four paintings, which run from very light to very dark--that it was technically impossible for the series to be photographed successfully, whereas Smillies' engravings, because of their black and white lines and smaller size, could be easily reproduced photographically.


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