The painter Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life series has been described as a “visual sermon,” one that portrays a cosmic vision of the major stages of life (childhood, youth, manhood, and old age). Two figures remain constant in this remarkable series—the angel and the voyager. We first meet the voyager as an infant in a boat with the angel at the tiller, guiding the vessel.
The next painting brings youthful idealism to stunning life by depicting the voyager as an adolescent steering the boat to pursue an ethereal castle in the sky, while the angel watches pensively from the shore. “Manhood” captures the calamities of life that disabuse us of the naivety of youth. The waters have turned violent and the boat is now out of control. The voyager faces the heavens in a prayerful gesture as the ever-faithful angel sits poised in the sky behind him. It is not until the final painting that the voyager beholds the angel. Now an old man in a desolate landscape, he watches as the angel summons him into the heavens where untold wonders await him.
The Course of Empire
Forming a striking complement to the Voyage of Life is Cole’s Course of Empire series. While the Voyage of Life paintings capture the journey of an individual life, the Course of Empire paintings depict the birth, growth, and decline of a civilization. We begin with an edenic landscape innocent of the major monuments of human achievement. Next, we see this same landscape punctuated by the signs of a nascent civilization. We are then treated to a panoramic vision of an empire at the height of its powers. The vision soon takes a sobering turn, however, as we see that same empire torn apart by the chaos of war. Glorious monuments are defaced, mothers wail over their slain infants, and flames engulf the stately buildings that once looked so solid and enduring.
The final painting is titled “Desolation,” and pictures the ruins of that once-great civilization, now overgrown with vegetation. A bird builds her nest at the top of a lone column. Far from being a pessimistic indictment of life’s meaning, this final image stands rather as a poignant reminder of the impermanence of human achievement. As such, it serves as a powerful invitation to take an eternal perspective on all earthly endeavors.