I am sitting on the stone steps of the National Gallery of Art–I have gone to many places, but I would sooner come right here than return to any other. There are about two hours left before the sun sets, but I have been moved to an incredible extent by a series of paintings, which out of so many I have seen , I dare call sublime. The effect produced by these four paintings is of a significance that prevents me from thinking of anything else, and so to move from here, I must first relieve myself of at least a fraction of these thoughts.
I learned in here of the valuable art the Americans were once able to produce. Maybe for the first time in my life, I feel a semblance of pride to hold this nationality. Never have I seen a work of art in the form of a painting so capable of expressing to the observer the spiritual stirring which is certainly able to direct and guide a man. The series was named The Voyage of Life, created by Thomas Cole, and aptly named, for it is just that. Each painting presents a man in various stages of development: childhood, youth, manhood, and old age. His relationship to the divine and the worldly is depicted in the four paintings all while the man is in a boat.
The first shows him as a toddler, emerging from a dark cave and accompanied by a guiding angel. In the second, this angel is seen on land, at the very point when in youth, a man becomes aware of himself and his will is born. In the distance he sees a heavenly kingdom above clouds, but his boat turns and diverts from the stream leading to it and begins toward the third painting. Here he is in manhood, his hair and beard are robust and black. At first glance he appears to be alone (or so it was with my first glance) but closer inspection reveals the angel concealed in the clouds, watching over him. On the firmament between him and his guardian, demons are forming within the clouds; they seem to be more visible from the boat than his guardian. His boat is heading for a precipice and ominous rocks, but the man’s hands are clasped together in prayer as he looks to the sky. His eyes are closer to the angel than the demons.
In the fourth painting, he is an old man, his remaining hair and immense beard completely white. The boat leaves behind the troubled waters in the corner of the depiction as it floats in the direction of a vast, calmed ocean. Ahead of him, appearing with a joyful, celebratory expression of congratulations, flies the angel. Behind it is another, emerging from a bright, ethereal opening in the dark sky reminiscent of the aerial kingdom he caught a glimpse of in his youth.
Besides each of the paintings is a tablet of text, approximately two paragraphs in length, written by the painter himself. The writing only compliments the paintings with its aesthetic prose, which guides the observer directly to the intentions of Cole without depriving him of the opportunity to attach his own significance to the works. I felt awe petrify me as I admired these paintings. I understood the text to be a part of the entire artwork so I must wonder if it is the combination of mediums that left me so inspired, or if it was the depiction itself.
Naturally, I found this to be a superior form of expression for its perfect fusion of prose and painting. It held the congruence of an opera, which is similar in being the conception of two otherwise individuated methods of expression, theater and music. However, I am inclined to believe the effect was more, if not completely, the result of the subject and intention. This is a work praising by means of portrayal, the divine path any man is free to tread. Its effect on the sensitive observer is not unlike that of the biblical tales of the prophets, for it also presents an example of what becomes of the man who resists the temptations of demons, even during the most tempestuous of difficulties, while he continually prays for salvation and deliverance.
To some, this effect might be more profound with these paintings due to the ease with which one is able to see himself in that very same boat. The Voyage of Life inspires a different sort of admiration because of this. One might look upon the portrayals of Madonna by Raphael–also in this sacred building–and find stirring within his soul admiration for the religious fervor that inspired its conception. But it is the difference between portrayal and creation that distinguishes the impressive from the profound. I find infinitely more admirable for a man to be moved by his faith and love for God to create from nothing what, to him, best expresses his devotion, than to merely portray a scene relevant to religion. I am tempted to think a greater faith is responsible for the former, but it may very well be due to limitations in creativity and societal interests.
The Voyage of Life is a sublime work of art for its ability to stir the soul of the observer while also serving as a didactic reminder of the greatest good for those who seek it. With the utmost ease, I was able to place myself on that boat, seeing the flowery bushes and bright innocence of my childhood pass into youth. Could any man who has seen a kingdom in the clouds as I have not feel the waters move beneath him at looking into that second painting? I wondered where I presently am and it must be here still, in the second painting depicting youth. I have known no true troubles besides what I have imposed on myself and the demons that have succeeded in tempting me are not so severe as those in the painting of manhood: suicide, murder, and intemperance, those sins capable of destroying the soul of a man in a single moment.
Although my boat has not yet taken me into the troubled waters of manhood, my hands are clasped now in repentance, gratitude, and faith, for I do not need misfortune to be reminded of God. The Voyage of Life inspires a man to clasp his hands in prayer and for this if nothing else, it is among the best works of art I have ever seen.