The Voyage of Life - Youth
Thomas Cole (1840)

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
from the notes at The National Gallery: The first painting in the series, Childhood, introduces all of the elements of the voyage of life. The infant voyager floats peacefully, joyfully out of darkness into a lush and rich world. The river is calm, the vessel is guided by a guardian angel, and the hourglass on the prow of the boat is full. All is expectant, hopeful, and warm. The waters of the river ahead are opaque; obstaclesif anyare easy to overlook. Here the view widens as does the voyager's experience. Now the youth grabs the tiller firmly as the angel watches from the shore. The boy's enthusiasm and energy is evident in his forward-thrusting pose and billowing clothes. In the distance, a ghostly castle hovers in the sky, a white and shimmering beacon that represents the unattainable ambitions and dreams of man. To the youth, the calm river seems to lead straight to the castle, but at the far right of the painting one can just glimpse the river as it becomes rough, choppy, and full of rocks. The journey will not be smooth or easy, but the boy does not see this.
Cole comments on the landscape and the youth's ambitions: "The scenery of the picture - its clear stream, its lofty trees, its towering mountains, its unbounded distance, and transparent atmosphere - figure forth the romantic beauty of youthful imaginings, when the mind elevates the Mean and Common into the Magnificent, before experience teaches what is the Real.


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