Turning the Leaf: America’s Eden: Thomas Cole and “The Voyage of Life”

June 25th, 2014  |  Published in *

by Jonathan Kamholtz

Taft Musuem of Art, June 13, 2014-September 14, 2014

There is plenty of spiritual energy in the great landscape paintings of 19th century America, but it is usually Emersonian in nature–Christian by implication and default rather than intention. That spirit is sometimes dreamy and solitary, and sometimes busy with life and labor. Sometimes it is found in the smallest details and sometimes it is in the sublime sweep of empty space. In the 19th century intellectual and taste-making circles that produced the landscape tradition broadly called the Hudson River School, the feel for the divine was honored out-of-doors because you can barely ascribe a shape to it, much less contain it with a roof. This is the spiritualized nature of which Emily Dickinson writes:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –

I keep it, staying at Home –

With a Bobolink for a Chorister –

And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Asher B. Durand—like Thomas Cole, a foundational figure in early 19th century American nature painting—wrote that this was the nature that the artist in the New World needed to try to capture: “The true province of landscape art is the representation of the work of God in the visible creation, independent of man.”

This is not, by and large, the nature with which Cole is primarily concerned in his four monumental canvases of “The Voyage of Life” on display at the Taft Museum, along with a couple of dozen other marvelous American landscapes on loan from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York. In these paintings, an Everyman figure undergoes a profoundly solitary Pilgrim’s Progress in a golden boat on the river of life under the watchful eyes of an angelic spirit. This spirit shares the exuberance of his birth, wishes him the best as he sets out on his way to dreams about his life that we can see are illusory, looks on from a distance as the voyager—haunted by his sins—stands in his now-battered boat to pray for help, and then finally, at life’s end, shows the pilgrim the way beyond the boat, the landscape, and the water as heaven opens and crowds of angels prepare to welcome him. I think it is fair to say that the 19th century’s encounter with these paintings would have been cathartic. Their religious spirit is formal, proscribed, and certainly not to be found in nature, but in dramas of faith and prayer. It is sincere and intense, if not subtle.

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Manhood, 1840, oil on canvas, 52 x 78 inches. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art, Utica, NY

The spiritual fervor of the paintings, which is implicitly shaped by Christian rather than, say, pantheistic concerns, is likely to have been designed in part to coincide with the sympathies of Samuel Ward, Cole’s patron who had laid out $5000 for the series. Ward, who had earned his fortune in banking, had religious sympathies that combined Anglicanism and Calvinism, a not immediately intuitive blend that may make more sense if one bears in mind that a similar mix propelled Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakenings during the previous century. One of Ward’s daughters, Julia, was to end up marrying Samuel Howe, a figure on the periphery of the Transcendentalists, and—as Julia Ward Howe—become the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; originally raised with the same religious sympathies as her father, she came under the influence of her husband, plus such public figures as William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and became a Unitarian sometime in the 1840s.


Cole found himself moving towards a more formal religious affiliation in the final decade of his life. In the paintings which dominated the later portion of Cole’s career, nature was no longer enough. As the fine catalogue essay by Paul D. Schweizer cites, Cole wrote that “I am not a mere leaf painter….I have loftier conceptions than any mere combinations of inanimate and uninformed nature,” a rather heretical and possibly ungrateful note for a landscape painter whose Hudson River visions helped put him and the frontier that was upstate New York on the map in the early decades of the 19th century. Like his models in the 17th century baroque, he wished to break from representations of the smallest parts of this world to pictures with large narrative sweep, from the pastoral to the epic, from description to story-telling. And when Cole got ready to tell a story, the narrative to which he found himself drawn was the cycle of spiritual loss and redemption. Two years after he completed the first set of “The Voyage of Life,” he was baptized and joined the congregation of the Episcopal Church in Catskill, New York, at a time when the denomination was stern about individual behavior but activist and forward-looking on some of the largest questions of the day, including abolitionism and women’s rights.


At the time of his death in 1848, Cole left unfinished sketches for another monumental series of paintings to have been called “The Cross and the World,” which in some ways picks up quite literally where “The Voyage of Life” left off. In one, the figure of the voyager, now a pilgrim on foot, heads out towards a shimmering white architectural mirage, very similar in feeling to the castle in the sky of “Youth,” the second of the “Voyage of Life” series. In another sketch, the pilgrim is about to enter the kingdom of heaven which is in design and color virtually a land-locked copy of the divine vision in “The Voyage of Life’s” “Old Age.” The chief difference is that where the earlier series imagined heaven teeming with bright white angels, the later version is dominated by a huge, distant, bright white cross.

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Old Age, 1840, oil on canvas, 51 3/4 x 78 1/4 inches. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art, Utica, NY



Thomas Cole, Sketch for The Cross and the World: End of the Journey, 1846

Though there was certainly a market for a non-Emersonian, explicitly Christianized vision of America’s encounter with its landscape (see, for example, Thomas Moran’s 1870s painting of “The Mountain of the Holy Cross”), it is intriguing to wonder what Cole’s legacy would have been had he lived to complete “The Cross and the World.” It is in any case fair to say that our current construction of the American landscape tradition is profoundly secular. It prefers to see the divine presence in versions of Edenic creation on the one hand, focusing on fecundity and the riot of life, or in the majesty of light cast over an enormity of space—or both: American landscapes are often both intimate and sublime. In Frederic Church’s “Sunset” (1856), the sun has just gone down and red light suffuses the closer of two layers of distant clouds. The red clouds, in turn, are reflected in the lake and landscape before us. We are situated on a promontory where a path leads down to a beach, one presumes, while directly in front of us, some sheep are resting. Does that make us into a sort of a shepherd? From the spectator’s point of view, are we able to enjoy the view in leisure, or does our work await us?


Frederic E. Church, Sunset, 1856, oil on canvas, 23 ¼ x 35 ½ in. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art, Utica, NY

Like its models in Dutch 17th century painting, American landscape art loves to raise questions about the status and situatedness of the observing eye. The Taft’s curators have selected some extraordinary paintings from the Munson-Williams-Proctor to help contextualize Cole’s “Voyage.” With both wit and insight, for example, we can follow the meme of the man in the boat. Sometimes he is fishing for his dinner. Sometimes, as in the Cole paintings, he is riding the boat of life, his hand on the tiller (“Youth”) while there still is a tiller to hold; later on (“Manhood”), the tiller has been lost and the voyager’s hands are clasped in prayer before his boat takes its steep plunge through life’s rock-strewn gorges. Some three decades later, in John William Casilear’s “View on the Connecticut River” (1877), a man sits in a rowboat, doing no more than what we are doing: he is staring out, admiring the landscape. Another group of paintings (by Francis Silva, for example, and William Trost Richards) places us at the edge between the ocean and the shore. As the curator’s labels thoughtfully suggest, in these pictures, other people, the busy city, industrialism, and civilization itself, are all out of view behind our backs somewhere. Eager to experience nature and willing to accept solitude as the price, we contemplate the rhythm of the waves and the impenetrable silence of the horizon.

The paintings selected for the show let us see America’s changing relationship to its natural environment. In some paintings, like Thomas Doughty’s “Early Winter, Hiawatha Island” (1853), settlers have just barely tamed nature for their survival and subsistence, marking it out with fences and the plowing of the land. In others, like John William Hill’s “Fawn’s Leap,” we encounter the landscape from the perspective of leisure, like the pair of female tourists whose casual presence feminizes the ruggedness of a waterfall at the end of a short hike. A wonderful pair of paintings by Thomas Hicks once adorned the lobby of a hotel close to the Trenton Falls the paintings capture, predicting what might be seen at the end of the walk one might take to see them, or possibly even taking the place of the walk altogether.

The Hudson River artists confronted and captured a mitigated wildness. Nineteenth century America is a landscape of trees and rocks punctuated by cleared fields and connected by footpaths. In Asher B. Durand’s “Woodland Path” (c. 1846), we have apparently just stepped off the trail to examine in detail a small stand of trees. A thin, darker tree is leaning on a thicker one for support. It reads like a family grouping of some sort. For Durand, as for many of the artists in the show, any single swath of the woods captures the range and cycle of life Cole splits out into his four canvases. Parts of the forest are young as a stripling or new growth; elsewhere we see sturdy growth and mature specimens; inevitably, there is weakness, death, and decay. There is a footpath in “Youth,” one of the Cole paintings, though it is a moralized one, the well-beaten walkway that leads nowhere and certainly cannot ever get you any closer to the mirage of what Cole called the “cloud-built palace.” Durand wrote that he thought of his renditions of nature as “portraiture,” and valued detail; a small plant can command our attention, the part helping to shape our perception of the whole. By contrast, in his narrative cycle paintings, Cole was ambivalent about the value of the detail, noting that in youth, “the mind magnifies the Mean and the Common into the Magnificent, before experiences teaches what is the real.”

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Youth, 1840, oil on canvas, 52 1/2 x 78 1/2 inches. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art, Utica, NY

The paintings in the Taft show raise the question of the work required by or imposed upon the landscape. At one extreme, the land might require little of us. It can be a setting for leisure and pleasure, perhaps best exemplified by Fidelia Bridges’s “Field of Queen Anne’s Lace” (1870-75), which lets us share an aphid’s-eye view of a wilderness of weeds. There is no sense that they will need to be cleared. At another extreme, we merely pass through the landscape; it is a backdrop, not a destination. The hero on his epic journey will not let himself touch much or be touched by what he sees. This is, it seems to me, that standing of the nature, whether lush or sublime, through which Cole’s voyager passes.

But often, the stance these paintings take with regard to the landscape is that people have to be ready to work them. In a painting as extraordinary as any in the show, Louis Remy Mignot’s “View across the Valley of Pierstown” (c. 1858) shows a landscape shaped by civic labor. In the middle distance, wheat is growing, and three men are bringing it in. Perhaps one is the boss, or perhaps all three are workers. Although the shadows are long and the end of the day must be near, they do not seem to be in any hurry; they’re talking to each other. The livelihoods and families their work is supporting are not seen. They have come together to work. In the middle ground is a stand of corn. They will have to get to that another day. In the background are hills not currently under cultivation, and the foreground seems divided between unimproved weeds and land that might be ready for sowing. It seems like a fully populated vision of a rural ideal.

Louis Remy Mignot, View Across the Valley at Pierstown, c. 1858

Seeing the Cole paintings in the context of these other works on display at the Taft helps highlight some things about “The Voyage of Life.” With one exception, there are no pathways into these landscapes, no place to get off the boat. The voyager can’t enter the landscape. He’s always in the foreground and can never get lost. We encounter him at each stage of his life as if he’s part of a theatrical tableau. The voyager has not been mingling with anybody; his relationship to his life is entirely solitary. He has been able to do nothing, and he has been doing it with nobody. So perhaps it’s fair to ask, What can his sin possibly have been? Aha: so that’s what Calvinism means. The voyager’s encounter with the world has been predominantly negative: through all his adventures, the best we can say is that he has not lost his access to faith. All the rest is journey. Do not work. Do not rest.

Another curatorial gift of the show is its well-spent effort to help us see the ways Cole’s work met its audience. Cole painted two versions of the series. One was nearly ready to be delivered to its patron when Samuel Ward died, leaving the suite to face an uncertain future in an art gallery Ward caused to have built in New York. These paintings passed through a series of hands, some public, some private, and were stored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until the set was purchased in 1956 by the Munson-Williams-Proctor. Cole painted a second set, which he exhibited in Europe and eventually sold to Cincinnatian George K. Schoenberger who displayed them in a gallery in his mansion known as Scarlet Oaks. When Scarlet Oaks began its second career as a health facility around 1910, the painting gallery was stripped of its jumble of salon-hung artworks until there was barely more than the Cole cycle, and then the space was repurposed into a chapel. Considering the directions of Cole’s interests towards the end of his life, he might well have approved of the change in the painting’s context, which transformed the paintings into something more institutionally Christian.

The exhibit documents as well how Cole’s work met an even broader audience. James Smillie, the leading reproductive engraver of his day, painstakingly copied each one, first onto paper and then onto steel plates, to produce deluxe15”x23” prints. These reproductions were marketed identifying the current owner—a girls’ school by the name of The Spingler Institute of New York—in calligraphic script below the title of each plate, and the Cole industry was in full swing. They were reproduced as well on photographic cartes de visite, smaller than playing cards, which could be left as a token of a social call. And so Cole’s “Voyage of Life,” which envisions man on a homeless journey through this world, with no material concerns and no interpersonal obligations, became domesticated. It is intriguing to think of them as ornaments to living rooms that embody the distractions from what Cole sees as man’s spiritual quest, implicitly advocating repose and company in the face of paintings whose message is restlessness and solitude.


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