Thomas Cole is considered the founder of the Hudson River School, a 19th-century American art movement. He was fervently religious and devoted to painting the American countryside as well as allegorical subjects that depicted fantastical scenery that illustrated stories with moral elements. This print is based on one of four paintings in Cole’s Voyage of Life series.
This river subject was so important to Cole that when the first set (1840, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute) could not be exhibited, he painted another version (1842, National Gallery of Art). Though all four paintings of the second set were later issued as prints, the first chosen for reproduction was the optimistic Youth, in which the dangerous and difficult windings of the river are in the hidden in the distance. Engraved by James Smillie the Art-Union, Youth was distributed to 20,000 American households in 1849. From 1853 to 1855, Smillie worked up the entire set for the current owner, Rev. Gorham D. Abbot.
In a letter to a patron, Cole commented on its theme and on youth itself, "There are many windings in the stream of life, and on this idea I have proceeded. Its course towards the Ocean of Eternity we all know to be certain, but not direct."