Flaneur’s Gallery: The Voyage of Life

Thomas Cole. The Voyage of Life: Manhood. 1842. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Thomas Cole. The Voyage of Life: Manhood. 1842. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Thomas Cole’s panoramic series of allegorical paintings, The Voyage of Life, consists of four large panels: Childhood; Youth; Manhood; Old Age. Though  not quite wall-sized, each deserves a wall of its own. The series deserves a room of its own, but all rooms are not created equal.  I remember various galleries over four decades where  Cole’s masterpiece has been  displayed with dramatically different effects..

The National Gallery of Art moves its collection around every few years, sometimes with disappointing results. You may expect to find old favorites in a cul-de-sac with a comfortable couch where you can contemplate quietly, only to find the paintings relocated to a busy thoroughfare. That happened to me in 2004, the last time I viewed The Voyage of Life. The paintings were hung in the museum’s southeast quadrant in a “vestibule” gallery leading to four other galleries. Four paintings, four walls, four doors, no couch – and a constant stream of chattering people moving in every direction. The location certainly had high foot traffic, and that would be good if the goal were selling Voyage of Life appointment calendars, umbrellas and tote-bags. High traffic, however, is reversely proportional to quality viewing. I missed the lonely cul-de-sac in the southwest wing where I’d spent hours looking, thinking, and writing about these paintings.

When I first looked at Cole’s paintings I was but a callow youth, like the boy in the second painting, restless and ready to chase castles in the air. I didn’t care much for Cole’s allegorical content. Then and now, I thought the angel’s depiction as symbolic radiant light was contrived. But Cole’s sweeping landscapes caught my imagination. The contrast between dramatic foreground and limitless horizon never failed to move me. It is a painterly effect that may not be perceptible with the eye alone while standing in a real landscape. The effect also is perceptible to the heart, to some vestigial memory of place. It is the depiction of feelings provoked or inspired by the landscape. In the 18th and 19th centuries this quality was called ‘The Sublime.” If the angel seemed a little hokey, Cole’s treatment of distant shadow and light on the horizon was numinous. Yes, as a callow youth I used that word. In time I came to know other painters from the Hudson River School whose style is called Luminist.

Cole’s allegory began to resonate for me only after my own bateaux had been battered in life’s cataract, as suggested by the third painting. Ms. Modigliani and I spent a rainy April afternoon with The Voyage of Life in 1999 shortly after my mother’s death. We went to Washington to complete her rites at the National Gallery of Art. I looked at the bearded man still standing in his boat, improbably, after a long, treacherous run through the rapids. I thought, that’s me, this is my life. Then I remembered a line from a poem by Yehudi Amichai: Gods come and go. Prayer is constant.

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