Thursday, December 9, 2010

When I was working in D.C. this summer my office was down the street from the National Gallery of Art, and I would often go there during my lunch break. Wandering through the museum took a couple of visits; I could easily spend an hour there and only get through a couple rooms. One body of work stuck with me in particular, so much so that I came back just to visit that room. Thomas Cole's The Voyage of Life consists of four paintings that depict the different stages of life a man will go through. He starts with Childhood, then Youth, Manhood, and Old Age.

Throughout the series, Cole depicts life as a journey made on a boat floating down a river. As a baby, the boat emerges from a dark cave and enters into a green, lush world. The boat is steered by an angel who serves as the baby's guide. The sun is just rising, and everything about the scene suggests the promise of a new beginning. In Youth, the angel no longer steers the boat but watches from the bank as the young man looks eagerly onward. In the distance, we can see a castle in the sky made out of clouds but on the right side of the picture we see that the river actually leads to a rough and dangerous stretch. At this stage, the boy still has the possibility of every opportunity life has to offer except that we know he is inevitably going to have to face the difficult waters. In Manhood, the man is beset by the reality of his fate which is that he is at the mercy of god. He has his face raised to the sky as if beseeching for help from a higher power. Cole attaches a narrative to each piece and this quote aptly sums up his cynical view of life; "It is only when experience has taught us the realities of the world, that we lift from our eyes the golden veil of early life; that we feel deep and abiding sorrow; and in the picture, the gloomy, eclipse-like tone, the conflicting elements, the trees riven by tempest, are the allegory; and the Ocean, dimly seen, figures the end of life, to which the voyager is now approaching." Manhood is my least favorite just because it seems that Cole has these preconceived notions about the evils one is certain to face in adulthood. He also seems to believe that at this point, men are simply at the mercy of god, and they have no control over there destiny. Old Age is less frightening, although it shows an image of death; a peaceful still lake where an old man sits in the boat. The opening in the clouds is the offer of an afterlife as angels usher him upwards. The storm the man had once faced seems passed now, and all there is left to do is move on to the next stage.

Thomas Cole is the founder of the Hudson River School which was an American art movement in the mid 19th century that used realistic and detailed portrayal of nature and was very much influenced by romanticism. This is evident in The Voyage of Life where Cole uses minute details to enrich the image such as the hourglass that can be seen on the boat in every stage of life. In Childhood, the hourglass is full, but as the baby gets older it continues to empty. The romantic influences are somewhat different in an American context as Cole uses imagery of untouched nature with the mountains, colorful vegetation, and the dangerous river to depict a life journey. While some might see these details as leaving no room for interpretation, I like the idea that the artist is trying to send a specific message about the way he sees the world. For me, the details make the image infinitely interesting as I see something different every time I look at it.

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