The Voyage of Life

By Kwesi Billups

The Voyage of Life

As I perused the works exhibited within the National Gallery of Art, I found myself amazed at the technical quality of the pieces, and impressed with the extensive collection of artwork spanning centuries of content material. However, while I found the many of the National Gallery’s collected works impressive, I hardly felt moved to emotion or deep thought by what I had seen at the outset. Initially, what stood out to me most were massive canvas paintings, depicting meticulously detailed natural landscapes, or works rendering tragic stories of death and abandonment. But, when I walked into a room that housed only four works of art, I was confused, curious as to why an entire exhibit would contain only four paintings. Immediately, I was drawn to the image of a man, floating on an open ocean on a gilded boat, hands and eyes fixed towards an angelic being. I turned to the written description next to the piece to gain more insight into its meaning, only to learn that the illustration was but one painting in Thomas Cole’s 1842 four-part series, The Voyage of Life. Cole’s Voyage spoke to me in ways that I couldn’t have imagined, depicting the birth of man and his subsequent interactions with time, space, and faith through vivid imagery and striking technique. When referring to “man” in this writing, I comment on the depiction of a lone male traveller in Cole’s series, and while I am tempted to critically deconstruct Cole’s male-dominated emblem of the human experience, for the purposes of this writing, I will focus more on the prominent themes of Cole’s series and the imagery presented within. I also edited and published a video to better capture my experience of the series that includes Cole’s descriptions of his pieces. You can watch it here:


My initial reaction notes to the piece while I was in the gallery:

Man is narrow-minded, his view limited. The ominous cave from which he has escaped with his Guardian is empty. He has escaped [a world of] perpetual ignorance, bursting into a world of vibrance. But, his view is limited. The Stream of Life [upon which he floats] is shielded by the clouds that cover the peaks of the surrounding mountains, and the flowers promise joy. Cole presents fore, middle, background. Angel is attention catcher.

I found Childhood to be the most visually stimulating part of the series. The contrast between the relative darkness of man’s origin and the light of his beginning journey ascribes profound value to the cave from which the glided boat emerged. The Guardian illuminated the scene with arms of protection surrounding the infantile human, but my eyes could not resist the mesmerizing darkness of the cave, and the implications of its presence within this introduction. The cave and Guardian both stress the depths of man’s ignorance. Not only is Cole’s depiction of mankind a product of infinite darkness, but he is helpless and subject to the will of an angelic being. In his written description, Cole identifies the boat and its implied motion across the Stream of Life as the subject of each painting, but includes aspects that yank the viewer’s attention away from the boat and thrust forward even more questions.


My initial reaction notes to the piece while I was in the gallery:

Man has become his own god in the wake of his awakening. Gone are the days of his infancy, and he has demonstrated through his piloting of his own destiny. His Guardian bids him a safe journey in a gesture of measured deference. Flowers have given way to thick trees, shrubbery, and diverse flora. In the background, a glistening palace beyond the untouched and unconquered peaks. Man reaches towards the cloud palace as if it is the essence of life itself. What is it that he wishes to gain? Luxury? Peace? Status? Ultimate knowledge? Palace is attention catcher.

Youth finds man eager to lay claim to the world to which he was born. His Guardian no longer travels as the steerer of his destiny, cast off at the behest of the enlivened human. Although he is no longer an infant, man is still ignorant as he believes he knows what he wants from the world, and exactly how to get it. Present throughout the deep space, full-grown trees have succeeded the formerly flowery scene.


My initial reaction notes to the piece while I was in the gallery:

Man knew nothing of the evils of his world. How could he have known? He casted off his Guardian in preparation for his own domination of his surroundings. In the foreground, a dying tree, poisoned and split open- reflecting the destruction of man’s optimism. Destroyed by the demons of “ suicide, intemperance, and murder.” Well at least encircled by those demons, waiting to lay claim to man’s optimism and curious demeanor, as he cries out to heaven to rescue him from the danger he could never have imagined would beset him. Although he would not allow his Guardian to guide him, man’s lasting trust in that power is all that is left to save him from succumbing to the peril surrounding him. Angel and the tempest are attention catchers.

I found the most profound element of Manhood to be the coexistence of demons and angels above man’s head. Cole would have been remiss to exclude the counterparts to his depiction of angelic beings and their influence on the experience of man on earth. Frankly, I did not even recognize the most central, and slightly discolored, clouds as demons until reading Cole’s written accompaniment for the piece.


My initial reaction notes to the piece while I was in the gallery:

The Stream of Life has reached a vast ocean of infinite scope. Man’s Guardian, who accompanied him unseen throughout his journey has shown herself to the tattered and tired man. His interest in the barren rocks of the Earth [that surround him] is gone, replaced by the joy of learning that his Guardian has been present all along. As time acted upon his own physicality and terrestrial surroundings, it eroded the strength of his resolve. The background, formerly constituted by earthly images, is replaced by angelic beings welcoming man into eternity. Were the dangers of life truly enough to break man’s spirit to the degree that he cares no longer about his quest for fulfillment?

Time is arguably the most important artistic element spanning the four-parts of Voyage. As time acted upon the man’s faith in himself and in his Guardian- shifting it from the former to the latter- time also acted upon nature itself. I would suggest that time was not simply a background actor- ever-present, but never changing the context of the events themselves- but that time’s influence on the man and his environment are what directly transformed his journey from a quest for substance to a surrender to divinity. The series initially seemed thematically centered around Cole’s depiction of man’s motion across the Stream of Life, but the journey was a mirror of the forces of time acting indiscriminately. Time transformed the Earth from a colorful, undiscovered land, to one mired by the storms of wickedness. Time brought forward the image of a divine palace constructed by the clouds of man’s imagination, only to shield this image with the storms of deceit that Manhood brought about.

While I wholly enjoyed experiencing The Voyage of Life for the first time, and resolving discrepancies between my interpreted meaning and Thomas Cole’s intended meaning, there is one particular difference between Cole and I’s perspective on the effects of tribulation on man’s will. For Cole, the end of man’s journey came when the trials of life became too much to bear, prompting man’s surrender into the gracious arms of the Guardian. Man was willing to abandon all that he learned, or wished to gain, for an eternal peace. However, I prefer to envision the end as a simultaneous fullness and emptiness of self. I can only hope to be able to weather the storms of life, gaining insight into it’s very meaning, and sharing this meaning with others. On this journey to fulfillment, I would draw on my experiences to influence, and be influenced by, the people sharing this human experience, ultimately extending my vision for the world through those whose lives I’ve touched. Cole’s series was moreso a testament to man’s faith in a greater, benevolent power, than a depiction of his capability for perseverance or achievement.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *