Munson Williams Proctor Institute

Utica, NY



The Voyage of Life: A Chronology

by Dr. Paul D. Schweizer


October 30, 1841: On his way to Rome from Paris, Cole stopped at Fontaine-de-Vaucluse where it is clear from his description of the scene before him that The Voyage of Life was still on his mind.

At the upper end of the valley where the water seems first to burst forth there rose tremendous precipices--walls of perpendicular or impending rock scarred and scooped out and marked and stained mountains to the sky. It was a strange and impressive scene. A few fruit trees and small gardens fringed the water's edge; all else was naked rock except here and there a few spots of sombre green where some hardy plant found a crevice for its roots. The scene called to mind my own picture of Infancy in The Voyage of Life, where there is a stream issuing forth from the foot of a mountain.

November 12, 1841: Having just arrived in Rome, Cole noted in a letter begun the day before to his wife that he regretted not going directly to Italy from America because he is now feeling quite vigorous and that there were numerous wealthy people around to whom he might be able to sell a replica set of The Voyage of Life. Speculating that he could repaint the series in three months, Cole wondered if he should have the studies he left in England sent to him.

Before November 30, 1841: Cole decided to repaint the series that winter in Italy and began working on Manhood. As is apparent in his December 14, 1844 letter to Crawford, when Cole made this decision he did not think he was acting improperly, nor did he expect that a replica set would in any way diminish the value or importance of the Ward set because he hoped to sell it in Italy or England.

November 30, 1841: In a letter to his wife, Cole noted that he had been urged to repaint the series by several friends, including George Washington Greene, the American Consul in Rome who was a Rhode Island cousin to Sam Ward. In his letter he outlined his plan of action and its consequences.

I shall have all my colors ground and prepared ready for me and I think I shall find their execution easy. I shall be delayed a few weeks longer in Rome in consequence, but if I sell the pictures here. which I expect to do, I shall not wish to spend so long a time in England in the spring. And by the time you get this I hope to be very far advanced on them.

December 3, 1841: In a continuation of his November 30, 1841 letter to his wife, Cole described the attention the replica set had already attracted in Rome. "I am not sure whether I told you in my last there is a journal that is published here which treats of works of art. A notice of myself and the description of my Voyage of Life has been published. The description was very well translated ."

December 6, 1841: Cole's English cousin, Sarah Pendlebury, wrote asking if he had decided to go ahead with his original plan to repaint "the course of ages."

December 17, 1841: In another continuation of his November 30, 1841 letter to his wife, Cole boasted that he was progressing "bravely with the third picture of the series."

December 23, 1841: In what is probably a reply to his November 12, 1841 letter, Maria Cole wrote to her husband from Catskill and noted: "I am sorry that you are not painting The Voyage of Life if you feel disposed for it."

Winter 1841-42: In a brochure that was published by Rev. Gorham D. Abbot in 1856, there is a brief account by Rev. George L. Prentiss of his encounter with Cole in which he recalled "the noble enthusiasm with which he devoted himself to his great work."

January 1, 1842: In a letter to Maria, Cole noted that he had nearly finished Manhood and that he had also begun Childhood, which he also hoped to execute "very speedily."

January 9, 1842: In a continuation of his January 1, 1842 letter to Maria. Cole wrote optimistically about his efforts. "I am getting on bravely with my pictures, am far advanced in the first of the series. And I have no doubt they will make an impression when they are finished ."

January 13, 1842: In another addition to his January 1, 1842 letter to Maria, Cole wrote about Childhood: "I was just painting a flower in the group that Maria Cooke used to admire so much in the first picture of the series."

January 16, 1842: In a letter to Cole, Durand noted that the Ward family planned to sell The Voyage of Life.

January 31, 1842: By this time Cole had nearly completed Childhood and Manhood.

February 6, 1842: In a letter to Maria, Cole noted that he was now "building the castle" in Youth. With the series as a whole beginning to take shape he added: "The pictures I have finished are something different from Mr. Ward's but I do not think that they are worse."

February 18, 1842: Continuing his February 6, 1842 letter to his wife, Cole apologized for not attending to some items she wanted him to get for her because he was very busy with The Voyage of Life. Also, on this same day in Catskill Maria replied to the December 17, 1841 segment of one of his letters.

I am pleased to hear that you are painting The Voyage of Life, if you can do it without any injury to yourself, that was all I was afraid of. I think that you must be progressing very rapidly to have painted the picture you mentioned. How much I should like to see it.

February 12, 1842: In another continuation to his February 6, 1842 letter, Cole wrote that he just completed the group of trees in Youth.

February 28, 1842: Cole noted in his journal that although he was pleased with his progress on the series, he wondered if he was using his time in Italy profitably.

March 8, 1842: In his reply to Durand's January 16, 1842 letter, Cole expressed the doubts he had about having taken time to repaint The Voyage of Life.

I have completed or very nearly three pictures of my series of The Voyage of Life. You will perhaps ask me why I engaged in such a work in Rome when I ought to be studying from models and how shall I answer? Perhaps merely in pursuit of "the bubble reputation." I am still a youth in imagination and build castles still.

After telling Durand about the "American Academy" in Rome where "a good room is provided with models every evening" he returned to the subject of The Voyage of Life.

The pictures I have finished have been seen but by a few as yet. I have in fact avoided showing them. but now begin to find it difficult to deny access to them. Those who have seen them seem to be delighted with them and you I know will be pleased to learn that some of the most distinguished artists here have expressed the highest gratification on seeing them. The studio in which I am at present is a small one; but our friend [Luther] Terry is going to lend me his for a week or two and I suppose I shall have a sort of exhibition--not a 25 cent one and not lighted by gas as you may suppose. There is an exhibition of modern pictures in the Piazza del Popolo, a few pretty good things are there.

March 12, 1842: Having learned from Maria of the progress he was making on The Voyage of Life, Maria Cooke, a family friend, wrote to Cole from Catskill. "We think Italy's air must be propitious to industry . . . for surely you are accomplishing wonders . .. The Voyage of Life half finished!"

March 13, 1842: As Cole was completing Youth, he described its appearance in a letter to his wife that he began on March 6, 1842. "1 think it is better in some parts and not quite so good in others." All that remained to be done to complete the series was Old Age, which he was confident he could "dash off rapidly." He also noted the reason why he was anxious to finish the pictures as soon as possible. "I am desirous now to show them as next week is holy week and after that most of the strangers will leave Rome."

March 15, 1842: On this date Cole added a section to his March 6, 1842 letter to Maria, congratulating himself on completing Childhood, Youth, and Manhood in twelve weeks and six days. He went on to note that he was certain that he could paint Old Age in a fortnight.

Also on this day Cole moved his pictures to Luther Terry's larger studio.

March 16, 1842: In another continuation of his March 6, 1842 letter to his wife, Cole described how pleased he was with Terry's studio and that people were already beginning to visit him to see the pictures. He also noted that he was at work on Old Age.

March 18, 1842: In the concluding section of the the letter that he began on March 6, 1842, Cole noted to his wife that he was painting the clouds in Old Age and that he did not think the picture would take more than ten days to complete. However, as this project began to draw to a close, his anxiety about being able to sell the pictures increased.

I dread the idea of taking them to England with me [because] there will be such an expense, risk and delay, and I sometimes think I have sacrificed my time in producing them when I might have been studying figures all winter. The taste of the English, particularly the artists, is so opposite to mine, that I fear my pictures will scarcely be looked at. They think nothing of poetical conceptions--and think a little sketchy effect of chiaroscuro and color is worth all the thought and poetry that can be put into a picture.

March 19, 1842: Although Old Age was still not entirely completed, one of the visitors that came to his studio to see the series was the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorwaldsen. Cole proudly recounted this visit in a letter he wrote to his wife on April 2, 1842. "He was much delighted with my pictures, said they were entirely new in art, extremely practical and admirably executed--he thanked me for the great pleasure I had given him and wished to be allowed to come again." Other accounts of this visit appear in The Knickerbocker (February, 1844), Noble's biography of Cole (1853), Abbot's pamphlet (1856), and in Greene's recollections (1860).

March 20, 1842: In his journal Cole wrote of the favorable comments he received the day before from Thorwaldsen regarding The Voyage of Life.

March 26, 1842: Cole was still working on the series at this time.

April 2, 1842: Cole announced in a letter to his wife that he had completed the series in four months of concentrated effort. Although disappointed that a number of the people who might have purchased them had already left Rome, he noted that "a good number of persons have seen them, many of them the most distinguished artists of Rome and I assure you I have every reason to be satisfied with the impression they have made."

One such visitor--either Tommaso or Luigi Saulini--both of whom were well-known cameo cutters, asked Cole's permission to make a drawing of the figures and boat in Childhood in order that this detail could be carved as a cameo. Cole was flattered by this proposal and noted to his wife that he would agree to this request on the condition that one version of the cameo be given to him. This incident is also recorded by Abbot (1856) and in Greene's recollections (1860). No cameo with this design has as yet been found.

On the matter of what he would do with the replica set now that it was completed, Cole wrote that if he did not sell them in Rome, he hoped to do so in England, and to that end planned to pack them for shipment in several days .

April 12, 1842: In a letter to Thomas from New York City, Cole's sister Sarah wondered whether the second version of The Voyage of Life was completed.

April 18, 1842: In a letter begun on this date, Cole's sister relayed to Thomas the news she heard in New York City that the Wards' version of The Voyage of Life had been sold for three thousand dollars. She added: "I feel really sad to think that they would have lost so much by them." In actuality, the pictures were not sold at this time; however, this rumor and the similar one relayed to Cole by Durand on January 16, 1842, may have been prompted by the sale at some time during this year of Samuel Ward, Sr.'s property at 32 Bond Street.

April 21, 1842: In a continuation of the letter she began on April 18, 1842, Cole's sister expressed to Thomas her hope that the replica set was completed to his satisfaction and that he would soon sell them.

Mid~April- May 1842: Although Cole stated in his April 2, 1842 letter to his wife that he would soon ship the replica set of The Voyage of Life to England, he changed his plans. Instead, sometime after April 2, 1842, he sent the pictures to what was probably the same exhibition in the Piazza del Popolo that he mentioned in his March 8, 1842 letter to Durand. They were more than likely on display for about six weeks, during which time Cole no doubt hoped that a prospective buyer could be found while he was on a sketching tour of Sicily. But, as he explained in his December 14, 1844 letter to Crawford, this never occurred for "the season in Rome was so far advanced when the pictures were completed that few of the picture lovers and purchasers were there."

May 21, 1842: Cole wrote in a letter to his wife that although the pictures did not sell at the Roman exhibition, their originality was praised. He added that he still intended to send the pictures to England in the hope of selling them there, but was prepared to bring them back to Catskill if that did not work out and hang them on the walls of his own home for the benefit of his children.

May 22, 1842: In his journal, Cole questioned whether he had acted judiciously in spending so much of his time overseas on a series of paintings that he could not sell. He reiterated his plan to take the series to England but was concerned how they would fare in a country where the prevailing taste was for "pictures without ideas [that are] mere gaudy displays of color and chiaroscuro without meaning."

May 26, 1842: Cole noted in his journal that he had decided not to ship The Voyage of Life to England. He summarized the reasons for this dramatic change of plans in his December 14, 1844 letter to Crawford. "I had a strong desire to get home to my family . . . [that] summer and I found that if I sent the pictures by land to England it would not only be at great expense but risk, and almost the certainty they would be injured. Time would not allow me to send them by sea and I was brought to the determination to ship them home from whence I could readily transport them to England."

May 27, 1842: Cole began his journey back to the United States.

July 30, 1842: Cole arrived in New York City from Liverpool.

August 29, 1842: In a letter to Greene in Rome, Cole noted that "my things are not yet arrived from Rome and 1 begin to get anxious about them." Presumably, he was referring to the paintings he had shipped from Italy, including the replica set of The Voyage of Life.

January 1, 1843: A poem entitled "Life's Pilgrimage," which Cole completed on this date, contains several concluding stanzas that are a poetic version of the imagery in Old Age.

February 16, 1843: Ver Bryck wrote to Cole to say that the officers of the National Academy of Design were planning a "review exhibition" that spring and that they hoped to borrow the original version of The Voyage of Life, which was still in the hands of the Ward family.

February 20, 1843: Cole wrote to Ver Bryck asking him to convey to the Academy his request that they not borrow the Ward version for the exhibition they were planning. He explained: "You know I have another set which I intend to exhibit and it would injure me to have Ward's exhibited now."

March 4, 1843: Discouraged by his inability to sell the set he had painted in Rome, Cole announced in a letter to Durand that he intended to exhibit them. "As the times are far from bidding fair for the selling of pictures I must endeavor to eke a living by their exhibition." His letter to Pratt dated May 29, 1843, indicates that he planned this exhibition to take place at the Academy the following fall.

April 19, 1843: Pratt invited Cole to exhibit some of his paintings in the upcoming second annual exhibition of the Boston Artists' Association.

April 24, 1843: In reply to Pratt, Cole noted that his letter arrived too near the planned opening date of the Boston exhibition for him to make arrangements to participate. As his August 9, 1843 letter to Pratt suggests, this included having frames made for the series.

May 3, 1843: Apart from the plans Cole had to exhibit his works in New York City, part of the reason for his reticence about Pratt's April 10, 1843 proposal may be due to developments then taking place in Hartford. As a result of the recent founding of the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Cole might have seen an opportunity that would lead to the sale of his version of The Voyage of Life. On this date, after an interval of several years, he resumed correspondence with his old friend and early patron, Daniel Wadsworth. This letter is now lost.

May 22, 1843: In reply to Cole's letter of April 24, 1843, Pratt wrote to say that because of a variety of circumstances, the opening of the Boston exhibition had been delayed until September 1, 1843. In light of this, he wondered if Cole would agree to loan The Voyage of Life, adding as an inducement a portion of the exhibition's net proceeds.

May 29, 1843: Cole replied to Pratt: "It would give me great pleasure to make an arrangement with your Association for the exhibition of my pictures of The Voyage of Life . . . if it can be done to our mutual advantage." In view of the large amount of wall space the pictures required, Cole went on to mention the matter of their installation.

There may be some inconvenience arising from The Voyage of Life being a series, the pictures of which must be placed consecutively according to the subject--hung in a line and separate from all other pictures. To arrange them properly the exclusive use of the whole side of a very large room would be required or more than one side of a smaller room.

At the conclusion of this letter Cole asked Pratt for a proposal indicating what percent of the net proceeds he could expect to receive (Private Collection).

June 3, 1843: In reply to Cole's inquiry, Pratt replied that the Association proposed an offer of one third of the net proceeds of the exhibition if under two thousand dollars, and one half of all the proceeds if they exceeded that amount.

June 4, 1843: On this date Wadsworth answered Cole's May 3, 1843 letter. His noncommittal reply to whatever Cole had proposed probably reinforced his inclination to send The Voyage of Life to Boston.

July 30-August 5, 1843: At some point during this week, Cole sent a now-lost reply to a letter by Pratt (possibly June 3, 1843), formally agreeing to lend his version of The Voyage of Life to the Boston exhibition.

August 5, 1843: Before receiving the letter that Cole wrote to Pratt around this date, Pratt wrote to Cole on this date (now lost), in which he probably sought to finalize plans for the upcoming exhibition.

August 9, 1843: In Cole's letter to Pratt on this date, he noted that because the frames that he had ordered for the pictures might not be ready. he anticipated having to get them framed in Boston. He also made reference to the competing exhibition that the painter Robert Weir would be holding at the same time that The Voyage of Life would be on view and concluded by saying that he would not participate in the Association's exhibition if the opening date was postponed beyond September 1. This statement was probably prompted by his desire to make sure that The Voyage of Life was available for showing in New York at the exhibition he had planned at the National Academy for that December, which had been postponed in order to show the pictures in Boston.

August 17-20, 1843: According to the plans outlined in his August 9, 1843 letter, Cole brought The Voyage of Life and several other works from Catskill to Boston around this time. Another letter that Cole wrote to his friend, Jonathan Mason, on September 1, 1843, indicates that he stayed one week.

August 30, 1843: In his journal, Cole noted that he was home from Boston on this date.

September 1, 2, or 4, 1843: The second annual exhibition of the Boston Artists' Association probably opened either on this Friday, Saturday, or Monday at Harding's Gallery, 22 School Street. Listed at the beginning of the exhibition catalogue was The Voyage of Life accompanied by the same descriptions that first appeared in the catalogue Cole published in 1840-41 when he exhibited the Ward set.

The impact these pictures had may be recorded in the preface to a small book published in Boston by Rev. Jared B. Waterbury in 1852.

When they were first . . . [seen] by a number of artists in one of our cities, the impression on their minds, it is said, was so deep, that, for a while, not a word was spoken. The effect was too great even for commendation.

September 1, 1843: From Catskill, Cole wrote to Mason in Boston:

I hope the larger pictures will meet your approbation but I regret that I may not have the pleasure of showing them to you myself. When you look at them I hope you will take the trouble to read over my printed description as (though I hope not necessary) it may facilitate in the comprehension of the subject of the voyager.

Despite newspaper notices announcing the exhibition at Harding's Gallery, Pratt wrote to Cole that attendance was poor.

November 4, 1843: A notice in the Boston Evening Gazette on this Saturday announced that "the present week affords the last opportunity to view Mr. Cole's sublime paintings of The Voyage of Life."

November 8, 1843: The exhibition of the Boston Artists' Association closed this Wednesday.

November 23, 1843: In a letter to Greene in Rome, Cole wrote despondently about the poor reception his pictures received in Boston. "My exhibition was a wretched affair. If I had got up a lecture or two on . . . magnetism of the fine arts, or some other ism, asm or ology, I might have attracted crowds." He went on to note that "the article which you intimated would appear never made its appearance, not a word. So I have rolled up my pictures and sent them to New York; where, with less pretension there is more taste--that is for pictures. I speak of what I know ."

November 30, 1843: In a letter to Pratt from New York City, Cole noted that "the pictures arrived safe here and I am about to prepare for the great grand exhibition."

December 14, 1843: Around this time Cole sent out printed invitations to the "private view" of the exhibition of his paintings that would open shortly at the National Academy of Design. This exhibition took place at Broadway and Leonard Street, not Clinton Hall as was stated by Greene (1860).

December 16, 1843: On this Saturday, Cole's exhibition was seen by invited guests. The replica set of The Voyage of Life was displayed among a number of his other works.

December 18, 1843: According to an account book that Cole began at this time, the first admission receipts for the exhibition at the Academy were collected on this Monday. As in the past, Cole had a brochure printed which listed the titles of each of the four pictures in the series with interpretive descriptions.

January 1, 1844: Writing to Charles Parker, Cole noted that he was not sure his Academy exhibition would be a success.

January 24, 1844: Cole received a letter from Pratt in Boston telling him that he would soon be sending him twenty-five dollars as his share of the receipts from the exhibition .

January 29, 1844: Wadsworth's lawyer, Alfred Smith, wrote to Cole from Hartford conveying Wadsworth's regret that he had not been able to see The Voyage of Life when it was in Boston. Smith added that Wadsworth wanted to know if the pictures were for sale and, if they were, at what price.

February 6, 1844: Cole drafted a reply to Smith's letter, but it appears that most of what he planned to say regarding The Voyage of Life was omitted from the final version of this letter and was incorporated into one written directly to Wadsworth shortly thereafter.

Continue to Page Six
Return to Beginning


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

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.