The Voyage of Life by Thomas Cole (1842)

The Voyage of Life: Youth by Thomas Cole

NATURE
Ralph Waldo Emerson

But if a man be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and vulgar things. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.


Modern-day Americans take for granted the sentiment that their land is beautiful because, as Katharine Lee Bates wrote, “God shed His grace on thee.”  The majesty of nature also inspired Thomas Cole to found the Hudson River School which, along with the writings of Emerson and Thoreau gave birth to the American Preservation Movement.  Cole saw in nature not only the glory of God but more so, metaphors of life which he depicted in his series The Voyage of Life.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :

Sometimes Cole let nature speak for itself, but at other times he wed his depictions of the natural world with allegorical ruminations about human nature and destiny, as in his four-painting series, The Voyage of Life. The Voyage of Life is an allegory for the four stages of human life, filled with both warning and promise about what lies ahead for each of us as we journey through our lives. The same elements are repeated in each of the four paintings: a voyager, an angel, a river, a boat in which the voyager travels, and the landscape, which transforms throughout the series from sublime to forbidding and then back to sublime as it points to the world beyond this one.

Cole was the founding father of a school of like-minded American landscape painters, who flourished between about 1825 and 1880, called the Hudson River School because its founders lived and painted in the Hudson River valley in upstate New York. These painters celebrated the unspoiled and undeveloped landscape of the young nation, seeing it as the “new Eden.” They were concerned about the high cost of progress and the advance of civilization, and the corrupting influence this had on the country, and were also concerned that the wilderness was slowly being destroyed to make way for humans. For them, nature was a refuge from a materialistic culture that was even then in the ascendency. Cole’s The Course of Empire (1836) is an extended meditation on how human civilizations rise and decline, but nature will eventually reassert herself. It offers a caution against the prevalent nineteenth-century belief in ever-expanding human progress—and also against materialism, commercialism, and the destruction of nature, calling viewers to a remembrance of our proper place of humility in the order of things.

Describe a time when nature made you feel close to God.


John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R


Thomas Cole

 

Thomas Cole, self-portrait

(1801–48). U.S. artist Thomas Cole was known chiefly for his landscapes of the state of New York and of New England. He was one of the founders of the Hudson River School, whose members celebrated the natural beauty of the American landscape.

Cole was born on Feb. 1, 1801, in Bolton-le-Moors, Lancashire, Eng., but his family immigrated to the United States, eventually settling in Steubenville, Ohio. Cole was trained by a traveling portrait painter named Stein and then spent two years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1825 some of Cole’s landscapes in a New York shop window attracted the attention of painters John Trumbull and Asher B. Durand. They bought his works and found him patrons, assuring his future success.

In 1826 Cole made his home in the village of Catskill, N.Y., on the western bank of the Hudson River. From there he frequently journeyed through the Northeast, primarily on foot, making pencil studies of the landscape. He used these sketches to compose pictures in his studio during the winter. One of his most effective landscape paintings, The Oxbow (1836), was the result of pencil studies that he made in Massachusetts. His scenes of the Hudson River valley echoed the loneliness and mystery of the North American forests. He could paint direct and factual landscapes recorded in careful detail, but he was also capable of producing dramatic imaginary vistas using bold effects of light and shadow. When the human figure appears in his works, it is always subordinate to the majesty of the surrounding landscape.

Cole spent the years 1829–32 and 1841–42 abroad and for part of the time lived in Florence with the American sculptor Horatio Greenough. When he returned to the United States, he painted five huge canvases for a series entitled The Course of Empire (1836). These paintings are allegories on the progress of mankind based on the Count de Volney’s Ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires (1791). A second series, called The Voyage of Life (begun 1839), depicts a symbolic journey from infancy to old age in four scenes. Shortly before he died Cole began still another series, The Cross of the World, which was of a religious nature.

Cole died on Feb. 11, 1848, in Catskill, N.Y. Durand’s well-known painting Kindred Spirits (1849), painted in Cole’s memory the year after his death, paid tribute to Cole’s close friendship with the poet William Cullen Bryant.

HUDSON RIVER SCHOOL

Hudson River school was a large group of American landscape painters of several generations who worked between about 1825 and 1870. The name, applied retrospectively, refers to a similarity of intent rather than to a geographic location, though many of the older members of the group drew inspiration from the picturesque Catskill region north of New York City, through which the Hudson River flows. An outgrowth of the Romantic movement, the Hudson River school was the first native school of painting in the United States; it was strongly nationalistic both in its proud celebration of the natural beauty of the American landscape and in the desire of its artists to become independent of European schools of painting.

The early leaders of the Hudson River school were Thomas Doughty, Asher Durand, and Thomas Cole, all of whom worked in the open and painted reverential, carefully observed pictures of untouched wilderness in the Hudson River valley and nearby locations in New England. Although these painters and most of the others who followed their example studied in Europe at some point, all had first achieved a measure of success at home and had established the common theme of the remoteness and splendour of the American interior. Doughty concentrated on serene, lyrical, contemplative scenes of the valley itself. Durand, also lyrical, was more intimate and particularly made use of delicate lighting in woodland scenes. Cole, the most romantic of the early group, favoured the stormy and monumental aspects of nature. Other painters who concentrated on depicting the landscape of the northeastern United States were Alvan Fisher, Henry Inman, and Samuel F.B. Morse and, later, John Kensett, John Casilear, Worthington Whittredge, and Jasper F. Cropsey. Frederic Edwin Church is considered a member of the Hudson River school, although the exotically dramatic landscapes he painted frequently had little to do with typical American vistas. The more individual landscape painter George Inness also began as a Hudson River painter.

For some painters whose theme was untouched landscape, the northeast was less alluring than the more primitive and dramatic landscapes of the west. John Banvard and Henry Lewis painted huge panoramas of empty stretches of the Mississippi River. Among the first artists to explore the Far West were the enormously successful Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, who painted grandiose scenes of the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite Valley. The Hudson River school remained the dominant school of American landscape painting throughout most of the 19th century.

Sources and Resources

Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016).

“Cole, Thomas,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).

Baigell, Matthew. Thomas Cole. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1985.

Cooper, James F. Knights of the Brush: The Hudson River School of Painting and the Moral Landscape. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1999.

Kelly, Franklin. Frederic Edwin Church. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1989.

Millhouse, Barbara Babcock. American Wilderness: The Story of the Hudson River School of Painting. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978.

Ryan, James Anthony. Frederic Church’s Olana. New York: Black Dome Press, 2001.

Veith, Gene Edward. Painters of Faith: The Spiritual Landscape in Nineteenth Century America. Washington, DC: Regnery, 2001.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

 

Terry Glaspey

 

Terry Glaspey

I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.

Let’s explore together!

Terry

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Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com

 

Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

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