Munson Williams Proctor Institute

Utica, NY



The Voyage of Life: A Chronology

by Dr. Paul D. Schweizer


October, 1836: While exhibiting The Course of Empire in New York City, Cole conceived The Voyage of Life. A note written by him on March 25, 1839, described the circumstances: "The subject has been on my mind for several years and was conceived at the time my pictures of The Course of Empire were exhibited . . . a few months after the death of Mr. Reed." Yet even before the fall of 1836, in such poems written by Cole as the one composed on his birthday on February 1, 1830, as well as in "The eager vessel flies the broken surge" (1832-34). and in his "Lines Written after a Walk on [a] Beautiful Morning in November" (1833), there are ideas that he would later use in The Voyage of Life.

1837: At some point during this year Cole probably wrote in relatively quick succession the three ideas for The Voyage of Life that appear in a sketchbook he began using in 1827. A number of the iconographical details that would appear in the finished paintings are mentioned here. Another entry in a notebook inscribed "London 1829" includes a small sketch of a "boat formed with sculptured wings--with an hourglass on the prow"

October, 1837: The idea of cyclical regeneration, which appeared at this time in Cole's poem "Written in Autumn," parallels the basic theme of The Voyage of Life

December 3, 1837: A letter that Cole wrote to his wife Maria on this date indicates that while he was in New York City he tried to see "Mr. Ward." It is possible that Cole was referring to the prominent New York banker Samuel Ward, Sr. These two men were not total strangers to each other, for Samuel Ward's brother Henry owned several early works by Cole, and an account book maintained by the artist in 1836 indicates that Samuel Ward had purchased a season ticket for Cole's exhibition of The Course of Empire. Although in his letter to Maria, Cole does not specify why he called on Ward, it is certainly plausible that he was trying to interest him in commissioning The Voyage of Life.

If Cole was trying to find a patron for the series, his timing could not have been worse, for Samuel Ward was at this time about to secure through his firm of Prime, Ward and King a loan of $5 million from the Bank of England to relieve the panic that had ensued when the banks in New York suspended payments.

At some point after this date, Cole was able to show his sketches to Ward. for his daughter Julia Ward Howe re-
called in 1899 that Cole "called upon him, bringing the designs of four pictures illustrating the course of human life"

July 1-October 1838: Two poems written by Cole during these months, "And shall I halt midway in my career" and "I saw a cave of sable depth profound," incorporate imagery that would reappear in Youth and Childhood.

March 21, 1839: Prior to this date Cole gave Samuel Ward a written description of his idea for The Voyage of Life. Ward liked his idea and on this date commissioned him to paint the series for the gallery that was attached to the rear of his home at 32 Bond Street in New York City. There is no indication of how the pictures were to be arranged in this gallery; however, when Cole painted them he indicated light entering the first two pictures from the right and from the left in the second two pictures, which suggests that he may have tried to accommodate his series to the lighting conditions of the gallery. The contract specified that Cole paint the series "in the style of those by the same artist known as The Course of Empire," for which Ward agreed to pay five thousand dollars, a fee twice as large as what he received for The Course of Empire. Serving as a witness to this agreement was Samuel Ward, Jr., with whom Cole would have considerable dealings in the near future.

March 24, 1839: In his journal Cole wrote of his desire to paint The Voyage of Life "in a manner worthy of Mr. Ward's liberality, and honorable to myself." Although he decided not to paint emblematic inscriptions in each of the pictures, he was certain that the series would be generally understandable and "capable of making a strong moral and religious impression.*

March 25, 1839: At least one of the several preliminary drafts describing the allegorical program of The Voyage of Life was written by Cole on this date. In its finished form this description would be used by Cole when he exhibited the series.

June 9, 1839: Cole wrote to his wife that he planned to see Samuel Ward: Sr., the following day.

June 10, 1839: Cole was considering a trip to Rome at this time, and on this date he received a letter from his wife urging him to go "and if you make studies for Mr. Ward's pictures while gone you will not lose much time." It would be several years, however, before he finally made this journey.

Early August 1839: According to his biographer, Rev. Louis L. Noble, the various types of landscapes that Cole saw on the sketching trip he made at this time to the Genesee River valley in western New York State helped him conceptualize The Voyage of Life.

September 14, 1839: Cole wrote to Samuel Ward, Sr., mentioning the finished studies he made during the summer for the series "so that when I have the large canvases before me I shall proceed with a certainty and facility that could not be obtained otherwise." He added that he had already begun Childhood, which he described as "the finest picture that I have painted."

September 20, 1839: On this date Samuel Ward, Jr., wrote to Cole: "My Father has authorized me to hold one thousand dollars at your disposal--for which you are at liberty to draw, on account of the pictures engaged of you.

October 30, 1839: To his friend William Adams, Cole enthusiastically wrote:"I have commenced my great gem, the series of The Voyage of Life. I work at it con amore and hope to make it the finest work I have executed ."

November 1839: Cole noted in his journal, that he was at this date painting The Voyage of Life in his uncle-in-law's "Stone Building" because his regular painting studio was too small.

November 27, 1839: Having grown increasingly feeble since the summer, Samuel Ward, Sr., died at the age of fifty-eight at his home in New York City.

Before December 7, 1839: Stunned by Ward's death, Cole noted in his journal how a similar turn of events plagued The Course of Empire. "There would seem almost a fatality in these commissions. Mr. Reed died without seeing his series completed. Mr. Ward died soon after his was commenced." With a sense of foreboding he added: "I trust that there will be no desire on the part of the family that the commission be discontinued; in fact there can be no change without my consent or theirs in a written agreement. This work is one in which I have much hope. I should consider it a great misfortune to have to abandon it."

December 5, 1839: Sam Ward wrote to Cole asking him on what terms his father's Estate could be released from the commission.

December 7, 1839: Cole replied to Sam Ward proposing a cancellation of the contract for one half the original five-thousand-dollar fee. He also offered to paint for the Ward family for an additional five hundred dollars a "small cabinet-size" set of The Voyage of Life as a gesture of gratitude to Samuel Ward, Sr., for originally commissioning the series. Although neither of these two propositions was accepted by the Ward family, Cole noted in an important letter written to his friend, the sculptor Thomas Crawford, on December 14, 1844, that he had in fact begun a small copy of the series for the family at this time.

December 18, 1839: A letter written by Cole to the painter Asher B. Durand gives an insight into his feeling at this time regarding The Voyage of Life project. "I am engaged upon my great series. Mr. Ward, you know. is dead. I regret the circumstances exceedingly. I do not know that it will make any difference with respect to the pictures."

December 22, 1839: Cole's optimism regarding the fate of The Voyage of Life commission is apparent in a letter he wrote at this time to Adams. "I have commenced my great series The Voyage of Life and I hope it will be the best work I have ever executed."

December 31, 1839: The painter Cornelius Ver Bryck wrote to Cole inquiring about the progress of The Voyage of Life.

Fall- Winter 1839-40: Among the books that Cole was reading at this time was John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

January 10, 1840: Having just about finished the landscape portions of Childhood, Cole turned his attention to the foreground figures. He had considerable trouble with the expression on the angel's face, which he repainted several times before he was satisfied with its appearance. In a letter to Ver Bryck Cole noted: "I hope the picture is the most complete one I have ever painted."

January 21, 1840: Cole received a letter from Adams stating his confidence that The Voyage of Life would be a success.

February 4, 1840: In reply to their earlier discussions regarding the fate of The Voyage of Life commission, Sam Ward wrote to Cole reaffirming his commitment to his father's original contract. This letter would seem to discredit the rumor George T. Strong recorded in his diary on February 21, 1840. that Samuel Ward, Sr.'s Estate was bankrupt.

February 18, 1840: In reply to a letter that is now lost, written by Cole on February 14, 1840, Sam Ward wrote: "I rejoice exceedingly that your noble work advances so bravely and hope with the first smile of spring among the mountains to look in upon you and admire what you have done." He added in a subsequent paragraph: "The conception of the allegory strikes me as being particularly happy." On this date Cole also received a note from Durand that mentioned his hearing the news that Childhood was completed.

February 26, 1840: Cole was now working on Youth, although in a letter to Adams on this date he noted that he was making slow progress, perhaps because of the difficulty he later admitted having with "that group of trees" (see February 12, 1842).

February 20, 1840: While the art world in New York City was aware that Cole was painting an important group of pictures, very few facts about them were known by the editors of the New-York Mirror. On this date a short notice simply stated that Cole "is painting a series of large landscapes. somewhat similar to his Course of Empire. "

March 15, 1840: Cole received a letter on this date from his friend, Rev. Joseph F. Phillips, expressing concern that the designs of Childhood and Youth were not complementary. Phillips wrote: "From the first picture we form the conception, both from the course of the river and of the skiff, that the direction of futurity is to the right. This, by a glance to the second, is contradicted: the course of both the river and skiff apparently retrograde ."

March 21, 1840: In a reply to Phillips' objections, Cole explained with well-considered reasons why he did not paint the stream flowing in the same direction in both pictures.

In order to give the same direction to the stream in each picture, I should be constrained to have the same view of the boat and figure or figures--nearly the same all through the several parts of the work: this would be monotonous, and would strike the beholder as having arisen either from incompetency to execute, or from poverty of invention, and that pleasure which arises from novelty would entirely be lost.

Cole went on to point out the pictorial difficulties he would have had if he attempted to depict the stream in Youth flowing as it does in Childhood.

Now, if the river had flowed in any other direction than the one I have chosen how could the aerial architecture have been introduced so as to have been placed in full view of the youthful voyager--it must have been imagined as existing out of the picture--which would be a tax on the imagination of the spectator that few would be willing to pay.

April 19, 1840: Cole received a letter from Stanton Dorsey expressing hope that he would have an opportunity to see The Voyage of Life.

May 4, 1840: Cole received a note from Adams asking him for news regarding progress on the series.

June 1840: Around this time Cole probably completed Youth, according to a letter he wrote to Sam Ward on September 23, 1840, noting that this picture was completed two or three months earlier.

July 17, 1840: On a journey to Saratoga Springs, Philip Hone visited Cole in Catskill and noted in his diary that the first two pictures of the series were nearly finished.

August 4, 1840: At this time Cole was working on Manhood. In a letter to Adams on this date he wondered whether the Ward family would allow him to exhibit the series.

September 19, 1840: George F. Allen wrote to Cole to say that he had heard The Voyage of Life was nearing completion.

September 23, 1840: Cole wrote to Sam Ward noting his disappointment that Ward was never able to follow up on his February 18, 1840, promise to come up to Catskill to see the pictures. Cole regarded this as more than simply a courtesy visit. for he had hoped to get Ward's permission to publicly exhibit the pictures that upcoming fall. He noted that he had been encouraged to seek permission to do so by "several persons of taste" and that Sam Ward's uncle John Ward did not think there would be any objection to this on the family's part. Although Cole did not deny that such an exhibition would probably benefit his reputation and might also be profitable, he emphasized that it would probably increase the value of the pictures and do honor to the memory of Samuel Ward, Sr. He also wrote in more general terms to Ward about the salutary influence he expected the pictures would have on the general public and of his desire that the series be engraved--an idea that was no doubt prompted by Cole's pride in the pictures as well as because prints had not been made of The Course of Empire.

Moreover, when Cole recounted this incident in the letter he wrote to Crawford on December 14, 1844, he added that he felt entitled to exhibit the pictures, because when he and Samuel Ward, Sr., drew up the commission for the series, both men agreed that the fee was partially determined by the benefit that Cole would enjoy by having them seen in one of New York's most distinguished galleries. This was prevented by Ward's untimely death, and Cole believed that he was entitled to some form of redress.

October 12, 1840: Having received no reply to his September 23, 1840 letter, Cole again wrote Sam Ward seeking permission to exhibit The Voyage of Life the following month. He mentioned his disappointment on hearing that the family was considering selling the pictures--"perhaps separately" as he wrote in his December 14, 1844 letter to Crawford--for as Julia Ward Howe later recalled (1899), the family considered them as "something of a white elephant."

In the first draft of his letter to Ward, Cole reiterated his December 7, 1839 offer to buy the pictures from the family and paint them a smaller set, but he subsequently crossed this out and presumably this offer did not appear in the actual letter he sent to Sam Ward.

October 14, 1840: Ward wrote to Cole that the family had no objection to a public exhibition of the pictures, but referred the matter to James S. Huggins, a lawyer and the administrator for the Ward Estate. He also dictated that Cole should feel at liberty to draw against Estate for the second installment of the commission.

October 17, 1840: Cole received word from Huggins that he would only allow an exhibition of the pictures if the Estate received one half the admission receipts.

October 20, 1840: Cole rejected Huggins' demand and in the draft of his reply claimed that an artist had the right to show commissioned pictures until they are completed and delivered.

October 21, 1840: Cole received a letter from Huggins demanding that the pictures be delivered to the family without being exhibited.

October 22, 1840: Cole traveled down from Catskill to New York City in an unsuccessful attempt to see Sam Ward to settle the problems that had arisen over the matter of an exhibition of the pictures.

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11

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