Day 93: From the Gallery: “The Voyage of Life” – Thomas Cole (1842)

The following description comes from New York University’s Literature, Arts and Medicine Database (LitMed), “a collection of literature, fine art, visual art and performing art annotations created as a dynamic, comprehensive resource for scholars, educators, students, patients, and others interested in medical humanities. It was created by faculty of the New York University School of Medicine in 1993.”

The Voyage of Life series is an allegory of the four stages of man: childhood, youth, manhood, and old age. In each painting, accompanied by a guardian angel, the voyager rides in a boat on the River of Life. The landscape, corresponding to the seasons of the year, plays a major role in telling the story. In childhood, the infant glides from a dark cave into a rich, green landscape. As a youth, the boy takes control of the boat and aims for a shining castle in the sky. The last two pictures reverse the boat’s direction. In manhood, the adult relies on prayer and religious faith to sustain him through rough waters and a threatening landscape. Finally, the man becomes old and the angel guides him to heaven across the waters of eternity.”

These four paintings have long been on my “must see” list whenever I visit the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Even after seeing them at least twenty times, I always enjoy seeing them again, in large part because of the beauty, sense of purpose, and presence of light communicated in and by each painting (and, by extension, depicted in each of the four stages of life – childhood, youth, manhood, and old age – represented in the paintings).

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