The Voyage of Life

One of my first days here in D.C. I walked down to the National Art Gallery and spent a few hours looking at paintings. The painting that stood out to me the most was The Voyage of Life by Thomas Cole. It is a series of four paintings, each allegorizing one season of life: childhood, youth, manhood, and old age. Each painting depicts a voyager in a boat sailing down a river, with the scenery characterizing that season of life. In the first painting, an infant glides safely down a rich, green landscape. In the second, a boy takes charge of the boat and sails toward a castle in the sky – without seeing the sudden turn the river takes just down the bend (which you can see barely in the far right of the painting). Here it is:


The third picture – the one depicting manhood – has meant a great deal to me this semester. In this painting, the scenery has completely changed. The lush surrounding is gone. Everything is black and rocky. Rapids appear ahead. The man has his hands clasped in prayer and is looking up to heaven in desperation. Here it is:


At various points this fall that have been particularly difficult, when I have cried out to God for guidance about our future and not heard a response, I have thought about this painting, and been comforted. It reminds me of the efficacy of simple faith. When the storms of life rise up around you, put your trust in God. He will see you through all trouble and speed you safely along.

I find very meaningful the caption that Thomas Cole wrote under it:

“Trouble is characteristic of the period of Manhood. In childhood, there is no cankering care: in youth, no despairing thought. It is only when experience has taught us the realities of the world, that we lift from our eyes the golden veil of early life; that we feel deep and abiding sorrow; and in the Picture, the gloomy, eclipse-like tone, the conflicting elements, the trees riven by tempest, are the allegory; and the Ocean, dimly seen, figures the end of life, which the Voyager is now approaching. The demon forms are Suicide, Intemperance and Murder, which are the temptations that beset men in their direst trouble. The upward and imploring look of the Voyager shows his dependence on a Superior Power; and that faith saves him from the destruction that seems inevitable.”

3 Comments

  1. Wow. Very powerful.

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  2. Gav, in the second close-up you give, it’s interesting how the water is leading the boat both down into rapids, but out away from the cave he’s in – the clouds on the horizon don’t look stormy. Is it a hint that the river of manhood eventually leads away into brighter skies?

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  3. Gavin Ortlund

    I think so, Eric – its interesting that both the second and third paintings contrast where he thinks he is going with where he actually ends up. In the fourth painting, he does indeed make it to the peaceful, undisturbed, shoreless ocean (old age).

    I also find it significant that the man’s guardian angel, though behind him and thus out of his view, has not left him in this third painting. He cannot see that his path is being guided by forces larger than him, but it is.

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