“Thomas Cole’s “Voyage of Life” 

Thomas Cole wasn't always a fan of popular art. The influential 19th-century landscape painter and founder of the Hudson River School was never content painting decorative or simply illustrative work. He was a great admirer of the European Romantics and an inward fan of American author James Fenimore Cooper who wanted to foster a spiritual renewal and make symbol-laden paintings that tell stories and communicate ideas about God, nature, government, and civilization. He sometimes worried that people wouldn't get him.

"I shall take the series to England and shall endeavor to dispose of them there," Cole wrote when the man who commissioned his allegorical "Voyage of Life" paintings died unexpectedly before the series was complete. "But I have little hope of doing so," he continued. "The fashionable taste (if I may dignify it with such a name) is for works of another order, pictures without ideas. Mere gaudy displays." The large canvases depicted an angel-guided river voyage that begins with the voyager's emergence from a dark cave and ends with the promise of a heavenly reward. If he couldn't sell the dramatically painted works abroad, he was determined to store them at home, "With the conviction that the time will come when they will be more valued."

click to enlarge “The Voyage of Life,” Childhood
  • “The Voyage of Life,” Childhood

While Cole's place in American art history is secure, it's questionable as to whether or not that time he imagined ever truly arrived for "Voyage of Life," and other allegorical landscapes. Although the images were popular and frequently reproduced, the romantic painting style became unfashionable. "Voyage of Life" exhibition opening this week at the Dixon offers viewers an opportunity to consider the grander narrative of this early American master and his best-known student, Frederic Church, by grouping all four works together, with preliminary drawings and related studies and prints, including pieces that have never been published or exhibited publically.

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