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The Voyage of Life: Childhood, 1842

Thomas Cole

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

oil on canvas

Thomas Cole's famous four-part series—his most renowned work during his lifetime—traces a man’s personal journey down the Stream of Life in extravagant allegorical terms from childhood (depicted here) through youth, manhood, and old age. Cole wrote texts to accompany the series, explaining in the most precise and colorful detail what each of the four paintings symbolized. In Childhood, a laughing baby rides in a golden boat while a guardian angel watches over and steers. Gliding out of a dark cave on the side of a mountain, the journey of life begins on a calm river with the sun rising over a luxuriant landscape. The artist wrote: “Joyousness and wonder are the characteristic emotions of childhood.”