Early in March of 1839, the prominent New York banker and philanthropist Samuel Ward Sr. commissioned Thomas Cole to paint an allegorical series of four paintings titled "The Voyage of Life," the subject of which he had conceived in the fall of 1836.
Cole began work with great enthusiasm on the first of the series, named "Childhood" in September 1839, using as his guide a number of preliminary pencil drawings and oil sketches. He continued working on this picture until early 1840 when it was in large measure complete. Early in 1840, Cole began work on "Youth," the second picture. The third picture, "Manhood," was painted in the summer and fall of 1840, followed by "Old Age," the last picture of the series.
His great achievement in "The Voyage of Life" was his synthesis of three related ideas: life is a pilgrimage; a person's life can be divided into four distinct stages; and the course of a person's life can be metaphorically compared to a journey on a river that winds its way through a magical landscape. Cole invented a program that combined these three universal themes in simple pictorial terms.
Despite the unexpected death of Ward several months after Cole began the series, he completed the four paintings in 1840. Difficulties with Ward's heirs prompted Cole to paint a second full-size set in Rome Italy during the winter of 1841-1842. The second set of paintings is now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
In May 2014, The Voyage of Life began its own voyage as it visited four cities over the course of two years: The Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio from June through September 2014; The Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia from October 2014 through January 2015; The St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri, from February through September 2015; and The Dixon Museum and Gardens, Memphis, Tennessee, from January through April 2016. The exhibition Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life demonstrated in dramatic visual terms the cultural significance of these monumental pictures. The exhibition also included a number of important preliminary landscape and figure studies Cole made for the series, as well as a selection of drawings, prints and photographs the series directly inspired, some of which have never previously been published or exhibited and are virtually unknown in the field of Thomas Cole scholarship.
MWPAI Museum of Art Director Emeritus Paul Schweizer was the curator of the touring exhibition. Two years prior to the exhibition, Dr. Schweizer conducted extensive new research on Thomas Cole and The Voyage of Life. His findings are published in a new, richly illustrated catalogue that explores the deeper meaning of the imagery, examines the influence the series exerted on American culture, and tells the remarkable story behind the creation of the four paintings and their fascinating 175-year history. This publication is available for purchase in the Museum Shop.