back to works by this artist

Thomas Cole

1801 - 1848

The Voyage of Life - Childhood by Thomas Cole

The Voyage of Life - Childhood   1855

  Mixed method engraving by James Smillie.
With the artists’ names in the plate.
S 490 x 651 mm; I 386 x 578 mm
Very fine impression of this large-scale engraving.

Thomas Cole is considered to be the key founding figure of the Hudson River School of American landscape artists. Born in Lancashire in 1801, Thomas Cole lived in England until his family sailed to Philadelphia in 1818. Having acquired the fundamentals of painting in 1820, he began his tours of the Hudson River region in the mid-1820’s and it was from this time on that his talents as a romantic landscape painter flourished. Thomas Cole returned to England in 1829 and travelled around Europe until 1832. It was around this time that he first conceived the idea of creating cycles of paintings with themes based on the rise and fall of civilisations; an idea which culminated in his series entitled The Course of Empire (1833-36). Cole subsequently applied this concept to the mutability of human life in The Voyage of Life.

Begun in 1839 and completed in 1840, The Voyage of Life is considered by many to be Thomas Cole’s most important series of paintings. The series consists of four allegorical paintings depicting Childhood, Youth, Manhood and Old Age. These images are perceived as some of the nearest equivalents to the art of John Martin and J.M.W.Turner to be created in America during the Romantic period.

Thomas Cole was contracted to paint the series by the wealthy Samuel Ward, for $5,000. All began well and in September 1839 Cole described his ongoing painting of Childhood as “the finest picture that I have painted”. Unfortunately, Ward died before the series was completed and bitterness developed between Thomas Cole and the Ward family, who continued with the commission to purchase the series but were opposed to the exhibition of the paintings. Because of the Ward family’s reluctance to exhibit the paintings Thomas Cole re-painted the entire series in 1841-42.

Upon Thomas Cole’s death in 1848 the Art Union voted to purchase the original series of The Voyage of Life for two thousand dollars with the intention that all four pictures be distributed as one prize in that year’s lottery. The Art Union also decided that, as a form of memorial to Thomas Cole, Youth should be engraved by James Smillie for distribution in 1849 to its members. The lottery went ahead and the winner, who was the editor of the Binghampton (New York) Courier, subsequently sold the paintings. In 1852 the New York State Court of Appeals declared the Art Union’s lottery “illegal and unconstitutional” and the Art Union went into liquidation. However, the new ownership of the paintings was not disputed and their owner contracted Smillie to engrave the three remaining works of the series in March 1853. The engravings were finally published in 1855-56.

The Voyage of Life is concerned with the stages of life, the passage of time, and personal salvation through religion. Childhood, the first picture in the series, shows an infant voyager, guided by a guardian spirit, emerging from a cave that represents in Thomas Cole’s words “our earthly origin, the mysterious Past”. The boat, with its figurehead holding an hourglass, and the river on which it travels are continuous throughout the series, as is the ever-present guardian angel. The prevailing mood of the weather and the surrounding foliage reflect the relevant stage of life in each image.

James Smillie’s engravings of The Voyage of Life are the largest of any of Thomas Cole’s printed works. Published in Boston by B.B. Russell, these prints are scarce in anything approaching good condition today. They are arguably the most important large-scale engravings of American Romantic landscape art.

On warm white wove paper with good margins around the image and with the text, trimmed approximately on the platemark. Sheet somewhat dry and fragile, thinned in places verso. Some expertly repaired tears at in margins, one entering image at top, lower margin chipped at edge – nonetheless, a very fine impression of this important engraving which displays well when mounted.