Cole's renowned four-part series traces the journey of an archetypal hero along the "River of Life." Confidently assuming control of his destiny and oblivious to the dangers that await him, the voyager boldly strives to reach an aerial castle, emblematic of the daydreams of "Youth" and its aspirations for glory and fame. As the traveler approaches his goal, the ever-more-turbulent stream deviates from its course and relentlessly carries him toward the next picture in the series, where nature's fury, evil demons, and self-doubt will threaten his very existence. Only prayer, Cole suggests, can save the voyager from a dark and tragic fate.

From the innocence of childhood, to the flush of youthful overconfidence, through the trials and tribulations of middle age, to the hero's triumphant salvation, _The Voyage of Life_ seems intrinsically linked to the Christian doctrine of death and resurrection. Cole's intrepid voyager also may be read as a personification of America, itself at an adolescent stage of development. The artist may have been issuing a dire warning to those caught up in the feverish quest for Manifest Destiny: that unbridled westward expansion and industrialization would have tragic consequences for both man and nature.

More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication _American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I_, pages 95-108, which is available as a free PDF at https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/american-paintings-19th-century-part-1.pdf


  • Title: The Voyage of Life: Manhood
  • Creator: Thomas Cole
  • Date Created: 1842
  • Physical Dimensions: overall: 134.3 x 202.6 cm (52 7/8 x 79 3/4 in.) framed: 162.6 x 231.1 x 17.8 cm (64 x 91 x 7 in.)
  • Provenance: Sold by the artist to George K. Shoenberger [1809-1892], Cincinnati, perhaps as early as 1845 and no later than May 1846;[1] Shoenberger heirs, after 20 January 1892;[2] purchased 1908 by Ernst H. Huenefeld, Cincinnati;[3] gift 1908 to Bethesda Hospital and Deaconess Association of Methodist Church of Cincinnati;[4] sold 17 May 1971 through (Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York) to NGA. [1] For a discussion of a possible 1845 date, see _Thomas Cole_, Exh. cat. Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, 1969: 35. Other sources place the acquisition a bit later than 1845; see Paul D. Schweizer, "_The Voyage of Life_: A Chronology," in _The Voyage of Life by Thomas Cole, Paintings, Drawings, and Prints_, Exh. cat. Museum of Art, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York, 1985: 45 ("December 1846?"), and Ellwood C. Parry III, _The Art of Thomas Cole: Ambition and Imagination_, Newark, Delaware, 1988: 332 ("sometime late in 1846 or, more likely, early in 1847"); however in a Boston Transcript article entitled "The Voyage of Life," which appeared 21 May 1846, the pictures are mentioned as then belonging to "a wealthy gentleman of Cincinnati." [2] A letter of April 1979 from Mrs. Robert Heuck (in NGA curatorial files) specifies: "Mr. Shoenberger died in 1892, at which time many of the belongings of the home were given to heirs." Shoenberger died 20 January 1892; for additional information, see _The Biographical Cyclopaedia and Portrait Gallery with an Historical Sketch of the State of Ohio_, 6 vols., Cincinnati, 1895: 6:1457-1458. [3] Mrs. Robert Heuck, letter of April 1979 (in NGA curatorial files) states: "In 1908 Mr. and Mrs. Ernest W. [sic] Huenefeld purchased the land [and the house and contents]." [4] Edward H. Dwight and Richard J. Boyle, "Rediscovery: Thomas Cole's 'Voyage of Life'," _Art in America_ 55 (May 1967): 62.
  • Medium: oil on canvas

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