Munson Williams Proctor Institute

Utica, NY



The Voyage of Life: A Chronology

by Dr. Paul D. Schweizer


October 25, 1840: Cole wrote to his wife from Manhattan that Sam Ward would be back in New York City the following day and that he hoped to see him then. He added that other members of the Ward family were surprised to hear of Huggins' behavior and went on to note that he had "determined not to do anything that can possibly violate the contract for that is what Mr. Huggins wants me to do." While in New York he may also have received the second installment of one thousand dollars on the commission,

October 26, 1840: On this date the Council of the National Academy of Design gave Cole permission to use its new facilities in the Atheneum Building at Broadway and Leonard Street. A statement carefully explaining Cole's intentions granted him the use of the "front Exhibition or Life School room for one week from the 7th Nov. next for the purpose of examining and completing under that favorable light his series of pictures of The Voyage of Life" (National Academy of Design).

October 28, 1840: Having been unsuccessful in his attempts to see Sam Ward personally on October 26, 1840, Cole wrote to him on this date explaining that his troubles with Huggins had dampened his enthusiasm "to incur the risk, trouble and anxiety" of exhibiting the paintings. He spoke impassionedly about his affection for the series, his opinion of their merit, and his anxiety over their uncertain fate.

There are those who consider a picture as nothing more than a piece of merchandise for which at parting there is no regret more than may arise from some pecuniary considerations, which has no value but its price in dollars and cents. You, I know, place a far higher value on the productions of the pencil and can imagine the regret with which an artist parts with a favorite work. Pictures are the children of the artist--his interest in them never ceases--he watches them anxiously long after they have left his easel--if he thinks they are worthy and they happen to be placed in honorable situations he rejoices--if they are thrust into obscure corners he is grieved--he has a part in them that money cannot purchase nor distance destroy. These pictures which were to be painted for your Father have more than usual interest with me. I believe them to be the choicest product of my mind and labor and if they had gone from the easel to the honorable situation he would have given them I should have felt sad at parting, but now I shall part with them with unfeigned grief for I know not what their destiny may be.

November 7-14, 1840: Although Cole's original plan had been to work on the series this week in the National Academy's rooms, a draft of the letter he wrote to Sam Ward dated November 14, 1840, indicates that they were still in Catskill because of Cole's "indisposition" and the delay caused by his recent trip to New York City.

November 10, 1840: Cole received a letter from Ward noting that he was fully aware of what had recently transpired with Huggins, adding that it was the family's hope that the pictures could be shown the following spring at the National Academy's annual exhibition.

November 14, 1840: In reply to Ward's letter, Cole explained that although it was perfectly agreeable to him if the series be shown at the Academy, he wondered whether "an exhibition so crowded with pictures is the most advantageous for pictures of much study, and contributes less to their value than a more exclusive one." He expressed regret that the whole matter "had assumed such an unpleasing aspect," especially after having learned from Ward in his last letter that it had always been Huggins' intention to pay Cole five hundred dollars for his time and services while the pictures were on exhibition. He added that although the five-thousand-dollar fee he was paid for the pictures was generous, his expenses for painting materials and frames had amounted to one thousand dollars, which left a balance of "no very extravagant sum for the ordinary labor of two years of a respectable artist."

November 16-17, 1840: At this time Cole brought The Voyage of Life to New York City.

When the pictures were cleaned by Sheldon and Caroline Keek early in 1956, they noted in their treatment report that Cole apparently painted all four works on stretchers whose dimensions were slightly larger than the solid wooden supports to which they were subsequently attached. In seeking a possible explanation for this, it is important to consider the likely size of Cole's Catskill studio and the logistical problem of shipping four large canvases down the Hudson River to New York City. Assuming that his painting room was smaller than Ward's picture gallery, it is possible that space considerations required that the pictures be painted in pairs. At some point after Childhood and Youth were seen by Phillips on March 15, 1840, they could have been put away and fresh canvas applied to the same two stretchers for Manhood and Old Age. After the second two were completed, they too could have been removed from the reused stretchers and the four canvases rolled up (as Cole did around November 23, 1843, when he shipped the replica set of The Voyage of Life from Boston to New York), thereby reducing their shipping weight by four stretchers and whatever crates would have been required if they were transported in that state. Once the pictures were in New York City, they could then have been attached to the slightly smaller solid wooden supports that in two instances bear the address "1 Laight St., N.Y."--the home of Dr. George Ackerly, the physician who was married to Cole's older sister Ann, and with whom Cole stayed at this time when he was in Manhattan.

November 18, 1840: Cole wrote to his wife to say that the pictures were hanging at the National Academy where they looked "extremely well." When he came down to New York City he forgot to bring the large sketchbook that contained "the program of The Voyage of Life" and asked his wife to send it to him. The frames that Cole mentioned in his letter were probably made in New York City and the pictures inserted into them there for the first time.

November 21, 1840: At some point around this date--according to a letter written by Cole to his friend, Henry C. Pratt, on May 29, 1843 (Private Collection)--Cole began to show the series to his friends and guests, but as he recounted in his December 14, 1844 letter to Crawford, he exhibited them without charging an admission fee in order to avoid a possible lawsuit. During this period

the visitors were numerous [and] after several days Mr. Ward told me that I might as well exhibit them for my own pecuniary benefit and authorized me to do so. Since that time the friendly relations between Mr. Ward and myself seem to have been broken up. I have been treated with reserve and coldness and I may say this feeling seems to have extended through to most of the family.

November 22, 1840: Because of Cole's anxiety about the fate of the pictures after they were turned over to the Ward family, he began to take steps to assure that even if they were sold, or if he were to be denied access to them, that their designs would not be entirely lost. In a letter to his wife on this date, Cole noted that on the following day he and his nephew, Henry Bayless, would begin full-sized tracings of each of the pictures and oil copies of the figures "so that with them and the large tracing I can at any time paint large pictures." He asked Maria to bring down to New York City the two canvases he had prepared, noting that he wanted "to paint the figures in them from the pictures here, so that with them and the large tracings I can any time paint large pictures."

November 24, 1840: Cole received two letters on this date concerning The Voyage of Life. One was from the painter Henry Inman asking him to show the series to a Mr. Brinckerhoff and a Mr. Clarke [?]. The other was from Thomas B. Ashton suggesting that it would be to his financial advantage to exhibit the series in Philadelphia that winter. It was not until around April 2, 1844, however, that Cole seriously considered showing The Voyage of Life in that city.

November 25, 1840: Cole noted in a letter to his wife that he had received the canvases and notebook he had requested, adding that he doubted he would ever again undertake a work of such toil in America because of "the uncertain and unstable nature of things which prevents the finest works that can be produced from being of permanent effect." Cole's ongoing anxiety about the fate of the pictures is again evident in his comment in this letter on the rumor that the pictures would be sold separately "and all my toil of mind in constructing the series be lost." Cole also noted: "I sent you the article on my pictures [that] was written by Mr. Bryant, and it is very good although a little incorrect in some matters." Cole continued that although numerous people had admired the pictures at the Academy, the Ward family had not yet come to see them. Therefore, if the following undated letter written to Cole by F. Marion Ward--the youngest of Samuel Ward, Jr.'s two brothers--relates to The Voyage of Life, it was more than likely written after November 25, 1840. "I have spent a half hour of great pleasure in admiring your beautiful productions, and regret exceedingly that I am forced to leave them without better explanation than my knowledge is capable of affording me."

December 2, 1840: Having received permission from Ward that he could charge visitors to see The Voyage of Life, Cole took steps to assure a continuation of the large crowds that had already enjoyed them. On this Wednesday, he placed an advertisement in one of New York City's upcoming Sunday newspapers announcing that the show would open on the following Monday. During the course of the six-week exhibition he continued to advertise in a number of Manhattan newspapers.

December 7, 1840: Cole's exhibition opened to the general public. In the brochure he had printed for this show there appeared for the first time his description of each of the pictures.

December 9, 1840: In his diary on this date, Strong wrote with admiration and insight about the series, in spite of his misunderstanding regarding its title and price.

I adjourned to see Cole's paintings of the Stream of Life. They are very beautiful: the idea is a good one and well managed. though after all, the allegory merely serves to string together four beautiful landscapes. The first two are very good--I can't say which I like best. The third I don't think equal to them, and the fourth different from any of them, somewhat in Martin's style perhaps, and the grandest thing I ever saw of Cole's handiwork. Altogether they form a beautiful series and if I was a son of Croesus I'd have them, though they do say Samuel Ward was to have paid $12.000 for the set.

December 10, 1840: Cole received a letter from Theodore Alien congratulating him on the series "which from all I can learn is destined to carry your name down the stream of life--long after those whose hall the work adorn shall have been forgotten." Cole must have been pleased with this letter. insofar as it was written by the son-in-law of the man who commissioned The Course of Empire.

December 15, 1840: Writing to Maria, Cole complained that the attendance at his exhibition had, up to that point, not done more than pay the expenses and that he was still making tracings of the pictures. He added that if the Ward family was not interested in keeping them, he hoped he could buy them back at a low price. If that failed, he would paint a replica set which, he was assured by his friends, would sell easily in England.

December 24, 1840: By this date Cole was convinced that the exhibition had been worthwhile. To Maria he wrote: "The exhibition goes on pretty well. I shall at least make several hundred dollars by it and increase my reputation ."

December 25, 1840: Cole drafted the first version of a receipt acknowledging payment of three thousand dollars from Huggins as the balance due to him for having completed the series.

January 13, 1841: It is likely that Cole closed The Voyage of Life exhibition on this date, for in the account book in which he kept track of the daily receipts for the show, there are no attendance revenues recorded after this date.

January 18, 1841: The Council of the Academy resolved on this day that "the Treasurer be requested to send in the bill for the use of the rooms for Mr. Cole's exhibition of The Voyage of Life and collect the same" (National Academy of Design).

January 21, 1841: Cole was billed $262.16 by the Academy for his use of its facilities. Other expenses recorded in Cole's account book include carpenters' fees for partitions as well as advertising, printing. the scrubbing and oiling of the gallery floor, cartage and portage, and the distribution and posting of handbills. His net profit for the exhibition was $274.82.

When Cole recounted the details of this enterprise in a letter he wrote to Pratt on May 29, 1843, he compared the profits it generated with those he had earned from his 1836 exhibition of the series he painted for Luman Reed.

Shall I say to you that my Course of Empire brought me in New York by an exhibition of six weeks more than $1000 clear. The Voyage of Life was equally successful considering the circumstances under which it was exhibited--it was seen in the exhibition room, without charge, for a fortnight before any charge was made and of course hundreds of persons who saw it free did not come again (Private Collection).

January 25, 1841: When the Council of the Academy met on this date "the Treasurer reported that [he] had collected of Mr. Cole the sum of two hundred and sixty dollars being the amount of the bill made at last meeting for rent, gas, and coal for [the] exhibition of [The] Voyage of Life" (National Academy of Design).

January 30, 1841: Sometime shortly after closing his exhibition, Cole turned The Voyage of Life over to Sam Ward at 32 Bond Street. Writing from Catskill on this date, he sent Huggins a draft and receipt for the remaining three thousand dollars owed him on the commission payable "ten days after sight" to his nephew. Also. a copy of the original contract that Cole drew up with Samuel Ward, Sr.. for the series on March 21, 1839, was made on this date by "W. H. W." and retained by the artist.

February 15, 1841: Writing to Catskill from New York City, Bayless announced to Cole "that Mr. Ward's business is at last settled and the three thousand dollars deposited for 6 months at 4 per cent interest in the New York Life Insurance and Trust Company." He mentioned the rumor already known to Cole that the Ward family was considering showing the pictures at the Academy's upcoming spring exhibition, and relayed another rumor that Dr. John W. Francis--the first president of the recently founded Apollo Association and an uncle of Sam Ward--was endeavoring to get the Association to buy The Voyage of Life as one of the cornerstones for a picture gallery. During this season Ward was a member of the Apollo Association's Committee of Management, but even his presence in the governing hierarchy of this organization did not solve the problem of how to dispose of The Voyage of Life for, as Bayless noted to Cole, it did not appear that there were enough subscribers to purchase the series from the Estate for the proposed gallery.

March 19, 1841: Cole received a letter from Lewis G. Clark saying how moved he had been when he saw The Voyage of Life.

April 8, 1841: In a latter to Adams, Cole attributed his recent illness to the strain of painting The Voyage of Life. He sent him a copy of his exhibition brochure and invited him to come east to see the pictures--which would suggest that Cole did not believe that they were totally inaccessible after having been turned over to the Ward family.

April 16, 1841: In a letter to his wife, Cole noted that the Ward family turned down the Academy's request to exhibit the pictures that spring. This sudden reversal of the family's previously stated intention (see November 10, 1840) was probably due to their concern about the propriety of such a display after the death on February 18, 1841. of Sam Ward's new wife and the death of their newborn son three days later.

April 25, 1841: Cole received a letter from Allen asking for one of the printed descriptions of The Voyage of Life.

Spring 1841: In an undated letter to Maria that possibly was written about this time, Cole expressed hope that his friend, Joshua Bates of London, might buy the series from the Ward family.

Before July 30, 1841: With the Ward commission behind him Cole decided to make the trip to Europe that he had discussed with his wife on June 10, 1839. Knowing, as he phrased it in his December 14, 1844, letter to Crawford, that "the pictures were yet in the [Ward] gallery unhung . . . exposed to dust and dirt in the midst of furniture and liable to injury," Cole wrote to F. Marion Ward asking if he could take the pictures to England in the hope of selling them there. In reply, Cole was invited by John Ward to dine with him in New York City so that they could further discuss the matter.

July 30-August 6, 1841: Sometime during this period Cole met with John Ward to discuss the proposal that he be allowed to take the pictures to Europe. He offered to insure them at his own expense and be paid whatever amount he could get for the series above a reserve price set by the family. The outcome of this meeting was described by Cole in his December 14, 1844 letter to Crawford.

Mr. Ward and the family seemed pleased with the arrangement and it was agreed that he should write to me positively in a few days. I requested that he should inform me of his determination as soon as possible. I might complain of the manner in which I was treated afterwards in regard to a proposition to take the pictures with me to England but I will not trouble you with this matter at present.

Having secured the cooperation of the Ward family, Cole was subsequently stymied by Huggins, who insisted that the pictures not leave 32 Bond Street without full advance payment of a reserve fee, a stipulation that Cole rejected.

August 6, 1841: In a letter to Maria, Cole noted that John Ward was disappointed that the negotiations with Huggins did not work out. He added, however, that something might develop in the future, for Huggins' tenure as administrator of the Ward Estate would soon end.

August 7, 1841: On the day of his departure for Europe Cole announced in a letter to Maria that he had decided to paint a second version of The Voyage of Life. The Ward family's seeming lack of interest in the series no doubt helped him reach this decision. As Cole noted in his December 14, 1844 letter to Crawford: "When I left for Europe the pictures were still lying on the floor of [the Ward] gallery unseen, or if seen--seen to great disadvantage."

August 21, 1841: With his arrival in London, Cole again mentioned in a letter to his wife his determination to repaint The Voyage of Life.

September 22, 1841: In a letter to his wife from London, Cole stated that he would not repaint The Voyage of Life, but would instead spend his time working in Italy on projects that did not require such long and close attention. This change was prompted by his desire to recover from the strain of painting the first set and also because "there is much difficulty in getting sketches such as mine through the Custom Houses on the Continent." Accordingly, Cole wrote of his intention to leave his sketches and tracings of the series in England and of his plan to write to John Ward again to ask if he would be willing to send the original set to England next spring, but under terms less generous than those he offered the family be fore he left for Europe.

September 28, 1841: From London Cole wrote to John Ward asking him to consider shipping The Voyage of Life there to be sold.

October 6, 1841: With Huggins' tenure as administrator of the Ward Estate at an end, Cole was optimistic about regaining control of The Voyage of Life. Writing Maria from Paris, Cole noted: "I shall not be surprised they send them." Another sentence in this letter provides an insight into his state of mind at the time. While buying small plaster casts he came upon "one very exquisite thing called a guardian angel that comes home to my heart and makes me think of home, my pictures, you and my dear little rogues."

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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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