The Voyage of Life: Manhood – is the third in a series of paintings by the American landscape artist Thomas Cole created in 1842 and presented in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. It is performed with oil on canvas with the overall size 134.3 x 202.6 cm (52 7/8 x 79 3/4 in.). This painting, along with the other three in this series, is a reflection of the human life cycle, “in which figures representing childhood, youth, manhood, and old age float down the river of life” (Dunbar 184).
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The Voyage of Life has a religious meaning due to the guardian angel, who occupies a specific position on each of the four paintings. Manhood conveys the darkest atmosphere and is the only one in the series where the angel is not around the voyager but looks at him from above. This paper analyses visual methods and design principles, the historical context and conceptual content of the artwork, and, on this basis, discusses and evaluates its artistic merit.
Visual Elements and Principles of Design
The painting portrays a man in a boat who is carried by a strong turbulent stream of the river. He is surrounded by dark rocks covered with moss and poorly lighted only on the right side. In the dark cloudy sky, there are the silhouettes of some shady creatures as if threatening the main character. The lower right corner depicts an ugly curved tree with a broken trunk. The painting contains only three light elements, hinting at the presence of benevolent divine forces. The guardian angel looks at the voyager from the upper left corner. The voyager himself on the boat with a figurehead in the form of an angel holding the hourglass prays with his hands folded and stares into the sky. There is also a part of the light sky just above the horizon on the right side, which makes the environment poorly illuminated.
The painting is segregated by the actual horizon line and the smoothly curved line of the left bank of the river. The space between these two lines is predominantly occupied by rocks symbolizing the separation of man and his guardian angel. The sharp, jagged line of the rocky peaks in the upper right corner frames the space of the sky, where the angel is located. The three-dimensional shape of the painting creates an atmospheric perspective and a sense of distance, height, and depth. According to Frank, “the Judeo-Christian tradition of Western culture teaches that time is linear – continuously moving forward” (50). The Manhood depicts this concept through a river current moving from left to right and symbolizes it by an hourglass in the hands of the figurehead angel.
The diversity and contrast of objects reflect the idea of opposites and struggles. To exemplify this, an angel is the only figure surrounded by a light-white glow, and hostile creatures in the sky stand out in swampy-slit color against the background of dark gray clouds. It is worth noting that “the symbolic landscape of The Voyage of Life is idealized” (Stroup 68). The visual balance of the painting is accentuated by the saturation of the images in the upper left and lower right corners and the absence of objects in the lower left and upper right ones. The sky and water also reflect the idea of a perfect balance of antipodes.
The river current, which is rather quiet on the left, turns into a very rough on the right. The sky changes from predominantly gloomy to more transparent and brighter in approaching the horizon and the figure of an angel. Thus, through the idealized landscape of balanced opposites, the artist denotes the idea of struggle and choice at this stage of human life.
Meaning and Historical Background
Thomas Cole was the founder and one of the most prominent figures of the Hudson River School of American art, which was characterized by a realistic depiction of the New World’s wild nature. It is possible to note that he channeled “the spirit of American wilderness” (Dunbar 184). Therewith, according to Harvey, “Cole’s views of nature merged his extensive schooling in British Romanticism with specific and local American articulations of landscape” (81).
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The artist used to resort to the religious interpretation of reality with the use of art allegory embedded in the depiction of the landscape. Besides, The Voyage of Life series contains the idea of the cyclicality of a human being. The first two paintings of the series, Childhood, and Youth are performed in bright colors and contain many green blossoms of nature. The guardian angel is located next to the voyager and accompanies him to a further life journey. The second painting depicts a ghostly cloud castle, symbolizing the future as the young man anticipates it. Eventually, the Manhood ruins the expectations of the voyager, and instead of a castle, hostile creatures appear in the sky.
The idea of a single fight against the circumstances of life and recourse to the supreme power in the worst times of life is clearly depicted by the artist. Researchers note that the Manhood is “a representation of the trials and difficulties of life, where the adult voyager faces the rush of the water full of menacing sharp rocks and dangerous currents” (Poppi and Kravanja 559). At the same time, certain elements of the picture make it clear that a person will not be abandoned by divine forces, who are observing him. According to Poppi and Kravanja, “the guardian angel is far from the voyager and observes the situation without him noticing so” (Poppi and Kravanja 560).
In this way, Cole demonstrates that the voyager has to make his life journey independently, and adulthood is the time when a person makes the most of his efforts. Stroup states that “the angel does not do the man’s work for him, but he has not been fully abandoned”, and “his struggles take place in a meaningful universe” (69). In conclusion, the voyager is reunited with the angel in the Old Age.
Several researchers have described The Voyage of Life as an exceptional experience. For instance, Dunbar, describing his subjective impressions of the paintings, states, that “ground falls away below the viewer’s gaze, collapsing into a heart-plunging abyss” (184). The series does cause a multitude of subjective associations because it very accurately reflects the feelings and experiences inherent in every period of life. The Voyage of Life: Manhood becomes a reason for understanding the collision of opposites in a personal situation. It also offers a different perspective on experiencing loneliness and struggles through religious reflection, although it can also be a source of hope for atheists.
This painting undoubtedly has unique artistic merit and can serve as a source of inspiration. Researchers note that Cole “expanded the range of landscape painting to embrace religious, moral, and mythological themes usually reserved for history painting” (Harvey 83).
The painter uses the landscape image to emphasize the various details and to focus the viewer’s attention on the contrasts that form the balance. The primary purpose of the artist is to introduce a certain sense and experience, which is peculiar to the stage of adulthood in human life. Unlike childhood, youth, and old age, there are both divine forces and hostile creatures threatening the main character, and the current of river water reflecting the arising challenges. Thomas Cole conveys the metaphor of time and the allegory of life’s journey expressed through the movement of a character from left to right. Using traditional painting techniques from the British Romanticism school, the religious context, as well as the depiction of American wild nature, he creates an entirely authentic piece of art.
It should be noted that the gloomiest painting of The Voyage of Life series is perhaps the most relevant for a broad audience consisting mostly of mature people. The artist uses several visual elements to create a visible abandonment of the main character by the guardian angel and to confront him with harmful circumstances. The artist uses some visual elements to emphasize the idea of a balance of opposites. As a design principle, the balance of diverse and opposite objects prevails, but the general atmosphere of the painting is gloomy. The Voyage of Life: Manhood is a representation of the trials faced by the voyager in adulthood, but also of the fact that supreme powers are watching him. This painting of the series is unique and brings unprecedented artistic significance.
Dunbar, Jean. “Thomas Cole and the Decorative Arts.” Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 90, no. 1, 2014, pp. 182-195.
Frank, Patrick. Prebles’ Artforms. Pearson Education, 2018.
Harvey, Samantha C. “Reading the ‘Book of Nature’: Thomas Cole and the British Romantics.” Transatlantic Literary Ecologies, edited by Kevin Hutchings and John Miller, Routledge, 2016, pp. 81-98.
Poppi, Fabio, and Peter Kravanja. “Sic Vita Est: Visual Representation in Painting of the Conceptual Metaphor Life is a Journey.” Semiotica, vol. 2019, no. 230, 2019, pp. 541-566.
Stroup, William. “Embarrassing Displays of Devotion in Nineteenth-Century Paintings.” Wordsworth and the Green Romantics: Affect and Ecology in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Lisa Ottum and Seth T. Reno, University of New Hampshire Press, 2016, pp. 59-77.