A Few Thoughts On Thomas Cole’s ‘The Voyage Of Life’

A good decade ago, while visiting D.C., I saw Thomas Cole’s ‘The Voyage Of Life:

It’s a four-part series: Childhood, Youth, Manhood, Old Age.

One person’s life, and all of our lives, can be broken-down into four allegorical stages, pregnant with visual and universal symbols.

From Cole’s bio:

‘Although Cole had ample commissions in the late 1820s to paint pictures of American scenery, his ambition was to create a “higher style of landscape” that could express moral or religious meanings.’

From this more interactive page:

‘In the late 1830s, Cole was intent on advancing the genre of landscape painting in a way that conveyed universal truths about human existence, religious faith, and the natural world. First conceived in 1836, the four pictures comprising The Voyage of Life: Childhood, Youth, Manhood, and Old Age fulfilled that aspiration.’

These scenes in the Romantic style can have an emotional pull for me, as generally does the work of the Hudson River School. Such allegory certainly tends to function as a vehicle into memory (Cole’s work has really stuck with me…in a sort of haunting way, mixed with some thought of how I’m supposed to live and what might be coming next).

Also, the wild, untamed nature we Americans have often faced is perhaps requiring of a spirited and grand attempt at putting our experiences within Nature into some context:  To soar as high as our hopes often do.

Or at least, to find in paintings:  Familiarity. I like to see the roll of a hill like I’ve seen, or an opening of clouds, sky and light like I’ve seen.

Perhaps Wild Nature can be ordered in a Romantic, neo-classical or more modern way.  Perhaps Nature can be made, with the tools at our disposal, to conform to some of our deeper ideas about Nature, mirroring our hopes in some recognizable fashion; giving some basic comfort and meaning.

Maybe, after all, we can find a home here.

On the other hand, allegory with overt moral/religious meaning can also come across as heavy-handed, sentimental, and moralistic. Too lush and pretentious; perhaps a bit anachronistic.

Do I really have to hunt for all the symbols and put the puzzle together?

‘So, you’re going to reveal universal truths, eh?’

This can seem distant from the experiences of the modern viewer, often finding himself a little further down the modern/postmodern ‘river’, where such attempts at universality might seem a wash.

Much more common these days are the very personal shards and glimpses of the inner life of an artist, attached to high ambition and great talent surely in some cases; as well to form and tradition, but generally making less bold claims to knowledge than ‘The Voyage Of Life‘.

In painting, I’m reminded of the abstract expressionist movement seeking meaning in reducing experience to the abstract in order to reveal something essential within Nature, or essential about our relationship to Nature: A transcendent place where shape, form and color can be isolated from anything immediately recognizable in the world.

Or maybe, I’m being too generous?

‘The movement’s name is derived from the combination of the emotional intensity and self-denial of the German Expressionists with the anti-figurative aesthetic of the European abstract schools such as Futurism, the Bauhaus, and Synthetic Cubism. Additionally, it has an image of being rebellious, anarchic, highly idiosyncratic and, some feel, nihilistic.[5] In practice, the term is applied to any number of artists working (mostly) in New York who had quite different styles, and even to work that is neither especially abstract nor expressionist.’

The exploration of the Self is often pursued, as well as that of Nature, but the general hope that it might all make sense (life, death, Nature, purpose etc) in many more modern movements is often left abandoned.

Or so often, as we’ve seen in the past few generations:  The pursuit of The Self can easily become subsumed to the pursuit of fame, celebrity, and money.

***

Towards a theme: Perhaps you’ve also heard of the Rothko chapel, in Houston, Texas.

Mark Rothko undertook the idea that within the modern context, one could create temples of universal meaning through aesthetics, art, and beauty:

‘The Rothko Chapel, founded by Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil, was dedicated in 1971 as an intimate sanctuary available to people of every belief. A tranquil meditative environment inspired by the mural canvases of Russian born American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970), the Chapel welcomes over 60,000 visitors each year, people of every faith and from all parts of the world.’

There’s even a suite of music by Morton Feldman, entitled ‘Rothko Chapel’

See Also On This Site:  Trying to stick something against his poems: Wednesday Poem: Wallace Stevens-Anecdote of The JarWednesday Poem: Wallace Stevens, The Snow ManFriday Poem: Wallace Stevens And A Quote By David Hume

Some Updated Links On Postmodernism

Repost: From The NY Times Via A & L Daily: Helen Vendler On Wallace Stevens ‘The Plain Sense Of Things’

Some Sunday Songs-Metal, Myth, American Romanticism And The Civil War

Within A Bank Of Modern Fog-Another Link To Robert Hughes On Jeff Koons

4 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts On Thomas Cole’s ‘The Voyage Of Life’

  1. The early Victorians were intrepid in their depiction of ideals; kind of reminds me of William Blake combined with the much-later children’s book/movie (with Shirley Temple!) “The Bluebird”.

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