The English-born American painter Thomas Cole (1801-1848) is famous for establishing the “Hudson River School”, an art movement dedicated to romantic landscape painting, that flourished in the middle of the 19th century. The artists associated with this school were inspired by the area around the Hudson river (that runs through New York state) as well as by the work of European artists like Claude Lorrain and J. M. W. Turner. In their paintings, the Hudson River members aimed to depict nature in a peaceful, realistic and also idealised way. Ruggedness existed alongside portrayals of “sublimity” (that quality of unquantifiable greatness inspiring feelings of wonder, awe and even terror). Such absorption in nature was in many ways a response to the increasing industrialisation of the time.
Religion played an important role in the paintings of the Hudson River School. Nature was thought as being a manifestation of the creator God, who, though transcendent, could in some way be comprehended through earth and sky. In 1842, Thomas Cole painted a series called The Voyage of Life, which is a Christian allegory of the human condition. These works proved valuable for the American religious revivals – the Second (1790-1840) and the Third Great Awakening (1850-1900), during which an enthusiastic and emotional piety challenged the Enlightenment concepts of skeptical rationalism and deism (belief in a distant and indifferent God who has “retired” after making the universe; does not answer prayers and is not involved in the lives of human beings).
The Voyage of Life is a visual sermon, an openly didactic work. It consists of four paintings: Childhood, Youth, Manhood and Old Age. Cole painted two sets of the series, one of which is at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, and the other is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
All four paintings contain five consistent elements: a male voyager, a boat, a river, an angel (messenger and protector sent by God) and a symbolic landscape.
An infant on a boat guarded by an angel enters a lush and tranquil Edenic environment. The figurehead on the prow holds an hourglass – showing time. The dark cave behind is emblematic of man’s mysterious origins, his unknowable past.
He’s an energetic, excited young boy now and must give up the comfort and shelter of childhood. He is goaded by the angel to go ahead alone and make a life for himself. In the distance, he sees a castle in the sky. By can he reach it? The river twists ahead. It can turn turbulent after a while…
A grown man, an adult. He must confront the struggles of life. The angel is not absent, just remote. The luxuriant foliage has been replaced by coarse rocks and withered trees. The man must pray ardently and bear the storms. He must persevere in this unmerciful landscape.
The waters have calmed. He is nearing the end. His time is over. The angel finally leads him to his heavenly abode.