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The Voyage of Life: Childhood

Artist: Engraving by James Smillie (1807-1885); From a painting by Thomas Cole (1801-1848), American.
Year: c. 1850
Medium: Black and white mixed method engraving on paper.
Size: Height - 15 3/16", Width - 22 11/16"
On Loan from Mark Brown

Thomas Cole was an American painter regarded for the founding of the Hudson River School. This movement, during the mid nineteenth century, was centered on the realistic and detailed portrayal of nature, also influenced from Romanticism. Cole conceived of the idea for The Voyage of Life series in 1836. He was later commissioned by Samuel Ward to start the series.

The series is a Christian allegory that represents the journey of mankind through the stages of life. Cole limited his series to just four stages: Childhood, Youth, Manhood and Old Age. This print is copied from the first painting of Cole’s series. The subject of the piece, a laughing baby, sits in a boat that is guided down a river by an angel. Cole uses the twists and turns of the river along with calm and rough tides to suggest the trials of life. After guiding man throughout the tribulations of life, the angel welcomes him to heaven. Cole’s work was considered the Pilgrim’s Progress of painting.[1] The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan, was second only to the Bible in popularity in late 1830s America. Both The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Voyage of Life use allegorical themes used to enlighten their audience to religious salvation. Samuel Ward died before Cole could finish all four paintings, in 1839-1840. In 1842, because of a dispute with Ward’s children, Cole traveled to Rome and created a second series of these paintings. This second series was acclaimed in both Rome and America. Currently, the first set of paintings is located at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York; the second set is at the National Gallery of Arts in Washington, D.C.

After Cole’s death in 1848, the Art Union voted to purchase the first set of paintings from the Ward family for $2000. In 1849, in remembrance to Cole, they commissioned James Smillie to engrave Youth, the most popular from the series, to distribute to their members

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