Yesterday I visited the National Gallery of Art, and finally got to see a host of my favorite 19th-century landscape paintings. Durand, Cole, Church, Bierstadt--they were represented in all of their operatic glory. The highlight was Cole's "The Voyage of Life" paintings, a series of symbolic and allegorical works tracing the journey of Man down the river of life. Being a paddler, I guess I'm partial to the metaphor. Much has been written on these paintings, but words tend to wash away in their presence. Here they are, with Cole's own commentary on each. Enjoy.
A stream is seen issuing from a deep cavern in the side of a craggy and precipitous mountain, whose summit is hidden in clouds. From out the cave glides a boat, whose golden prow and sides are sculpted into figures of the Hours. Steered by an angelic Form, and laden with buds and flowers, it bears a laughing Infant, the Voyager whose varied course the artist has attempted to delineate. On either hand the banks of the stream are clothed in luxuriant herbage and flowers. The rising sun bathes the mountains and flowery banks in rosy light.
The dark cavern is emblematic of our earthly origin,and the mysterious Past. The Boat, composed of Figures of the Hours, images the thought that we are borne on the hours down the Stream of Life. The boat identifies the subject in each picture. The rosy light of the morning, the luxuriant flowers and plants, are emblems of the joyousness of early life. The close banks and the limited scope of the scene indicate the narrow experience of Childhood, and the nature of its pleasures and desires. The Egyptian Lotus in the forground of the picture is symbolical of Human Life. Joyousness and wonder are the characteristics emotions of childhood."
"The stream now pursues its course through a landscape of wider scope and more diversified beauty. Trees of rich growth overshadow its banks, and verdant hills form the base of lofty mountains. The Infant of the former scene is become a Youth on the verge of Manhood. He is now alone in the Boat, and takes the helm himself; and in an attitude of confidence and eager expectation, gazes on a cloudy pile of Architecture, and air-built Castle, that rises dome above dome in the far-off blue sky. The Guardian Spirit stands upon the bank of the stream, and with serious yet benign countenance seems to be bidding the impetuous voyager “God-speed.” The beautiful stream flows directly toward the aerial palace, for a distance; but at length makes a sudden turn, and is seen in glimpses beneath the trees, until it at last descends with rapid current into a rocky ravine, where the voyager will be found in the next picture. Over the remote hills, which seem to intercept the strem, and turn it from its hitherto direct course, a path is dimly seen, tending directly toward that cloudy Fabric, which is the onject and desire of the voyage.
The scenery of this picture—-its clear stream, its lofty trees, its towering mountains, its unbounded distance, and transparent atmosphere—-figure[s] forth the romantic beauty of youthful imaginings, when the mind magnifies the Mean and Common into the Magnificant before experience teaches what is the real. The gorgeous cloud-built palace, whose most glorious domes seem but yet but half revealed to the eye, growing more and more lofty as we gaze, is emblematic of the daydreams of youth, its aspirations after glory and fame; and the dimly seen path would intimate that Youth, in his impetuous career, is forgetful that he is embarked on the Stream of Life, and that its current sweeps along with resistless force, and increases in swiftness as it descends toward the great Ocean of Eternity."
"Storm and cloud enshroud a rugged and dreary landscape. Bare impending precipices rise in the lurid light. The swollen stream rushes furiously down a dark ravine, whirling and foaming in its wild career, and speeding toward the Ocean, which is dimly seen through the mist and falling rain. The boat is there, plunging amid the turbulent waters. The voyager is now a man of middle age; the helm of the boat is gone, and he looks imploringly toward heaven, as if heaven’s aid alone could save him from the perils that surround him. The Guardian Spirit calmly sits in the clouds, watching with an air of solicitude the affrightened voyager. Demon forms are hovering in the air.
Trouble is characteristic of the period of Manhood. In Childhood there is no cankering care; in Youth no despairing thought. 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. The demon forms are Suicide, Intemperance, and Murder, which are the temptations that beset man in their direst trouble. The upward and imploring look of the voyager shows his dedendence on a Superior Power and that faith saves him from the destruction that seems inevitable."
"Portentious clouds are brooding over a vast and midnight Ocean. A few barren rocks are seen through the gloom—-the last shores of the world. These form the mouth of the river, and the boat, shattered by storms, its figures of the hours broken and drooping, is seen gliding over the deep waters. Directed by the Guardian Spirit, who thus far has accompanied him unseen, the voyager, now an old man, looks upward to an opening in the clouds, from whence a glorious light bursts forth, and angels are seen descending the cloudy steps, as if to welcome him to the Haven of Immortal Life.
The stream of life has now reached the Ocean, to which all life is tending. The world, to Old Age, is destitute of interest. There is no longer any green thing upon it. The broken and drooping figures of the boat show that Time is nearly ended. The chains of corporeal existence are falling away; and already the mind has glimpses of Immortal Life. The angelic Being, of whose presence until now the voyager has been unconscious, is revealed to him, and with a countenance beaming with joy, shows to his wondering gaze scenes such as mortal man has never yet seen."
Thomas Cole, 1840