The Voyage of Life



I was looking up some Romantic artists today and ran into the name of Thomas Cole, and as you do when you think of Thomas Cole, I looked up his Voyage of Life again. For those of you who do not know, Voyage of Life is a set of four paintings that depict the four stages of a man’s life: childhood, youth, manhood and old age. The paintings are packed with metaphors, and like all great art the more you gaze at them the more you take away with you. For instance, did you notice how the shape of the water body in which he travels changes from painting to painting? In ‘childhood’ it is narrow and stream-like; in ‘youth’ it is opening up into a wide, calm river leading up to an ethereal castle in the clouds; in ‘manhood’ it is turbulent and in ‘old age’ it is formless.

There are other metaphors too, but I won’t point them out. See if you can pick them out and figure out what each of them means to you. This is a personal exercise, so don’t worry about what the right or wrong answer is. It is more important that you spend time watching these paintings and make notes on how the artist conveyed meaning by means of an image. What is the meaning of a broken tiller on a boat? Why is the angel behind the baby in the first painting but somewhere among the clouds in the third? What does the orange patch of sky in the ‘manhood’ signify?

And then, can you place yourself in the tiller as a young child and write an essay on your own life so far? Can you perhaps write about the flowery landscape of your childhood, of the castle of your dreams, of the turbulence of your manhood, and of the serenity of your old age? Can you, in other words, take the metaphors in these paintings, personalize them to your life, and write a piece on it?  Of course, that will mean adding metaphors and images of your own, and once you’re done, you could perhaps pick up one of the many themes this set displays – hope, despair, light, darkness, faith, futility – and hang your piece around it.


  1. face is wide at the temples and hairline, narrowing to a small delicate chin.


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