Thomas Cole | The Voyage of Life

Thomas Cole Takes a Voyage

Nina Sangimino | February 22nd, 2014 | Posted in News

Between 1839 and 1840, Thomas Cole painted his iconic allegorical series The Voyage of Life, and now these paintings are about to embark on a journey their own. March 2 will be the last day to see them at their home in Utica, New York, at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, before the four works set off on an eighteen-month national tour. Acquired by MWPAI in 1955, the group has only left the institution twice since then, causing limited access to some of the most significant works from the nineteenth century. In a landmark exhibition, America’s Eden: Thomas Cole and The Voyage of Life, curated by MWPAI director emeritus Dr. Paul Schweizer, the entire series will travel to four locations during the next year-and-a-half. The first stop will be the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the exhibition will run from June 13 to September 14. The show will then continue to the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk Virginia (October 2014 through January 2015); and Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri (May 2015 through Aug 2015); before finally returning to MWPAI.

Originally conceived by Cole in 1836, the works were finally commissioned by banker and philanthropist Samuel Ward Sr. in early March 1839. Cole began work on the first of the series, Childhood, in September of that year. Although Ward passed away several months later, Cole continued work on Childhood until it was completed in 1840, at which time he painted the three remaining pieces: Youth, Manhood, and finally Old Age. The series expresses Cole’s view of life as a metaphorical journey, the traveler proceeding on a winding river which takes unexpected twists and turns, offering both pleasant calm and dangerous rapids. After Ward’s death, Cole fought with Ward’s heirs over who would keep the four paintings, but the heirs eventually won. Cole decided to paint a copy of each work to keep for himself, and these second versions are currently in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The paintings will be accompanied by forty-one additional works from the institute’s permanent collections, including Cole’s preliminary drawings and sketches, as well as pieces by Asher B. Durand, Frederic Edwin Church, Jasper Francis Cropsey, and George Inness that were influenced by Cole’s vision. The exhibition is meant to expose the wider public to these important masterpieces by the father of the Hudson River School and to contextualize how important and influential these works were on Cole’s artistic descendants. An accompanying exhibition catalogue by Schweizer features previously unpublished archival materials and research related to the series. America’s Eden promises to add an important chapter to the story of these already legendary paintings as Americans are granted a rare opportunity to experience the skill, influence, and pure beauty of the work of the father of American landscape painting.

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Childhood, Oil on canvas

Thomas Cole (1801–1848), The Voyage of Life: Childhood, 1839-40, oil on canvas. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York, Museum Purchase, 55.105

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Youth, Oil on canvas

Thomas Cole (1801–1848), The Voyage of Life: Youth, 1840, oil on canvas. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York, Museum Purchase, 55.106

Nina Sangimino is the Senior Researcher at Questroyal Fine Art. Nina discovered her love of art in high school drawing and painting classes. She went on to study art history at the University at Albany and earned an MS in the same field from Pratt Institute. Prior to joining Questroyal, Nina was a curatorial apprentice at the Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport, New York.