Four of my favorite pictures from childhood have been Cole's "Voyage of
Life." I have studied the tiny infant in the boat surrounded by roses,
life's stream full of luxuriant vegetation; the happy, ambitious youth,
looking eagerly forward to the Temple of Fame, steering the boat
himself, with no need of aid from his guardian angel; then the worried
and troubled man, his boat tossing and whirling among the broken trees
and frightful storms that come to all; and lastly, perhaps most
beautiful, the old man sailing peacefully into the ocean of eternity,
the angel having returned to guide him, and the way to heaven being
filled with celestial spirits. I have always hung these pictures near my
writing-table, and their lesson has been a helpful and inspiring one.
No wonder that Thorwaldsen, the great sculptor, said when he looked upon
them in Rome, "O great artist! what beauty of conception! what an
admirable arrangement of parts! what an accurate study of nature! what
truth of detail!" He told Cole that his work was entirely new and
original, executed in a masterly manner, and he commended the harmony
These pictures are hung in thousands of homes; but how few persons know
the history of the artist! Born in England, Feb. 1, 1801, the only son
in a family of eight children, and the youngest but one, we find him
when a mere child, in some print-works, learning to engrave simple
designs for calico. His father, a woolen manufacturer, had failed in
business, and the family were thrown upon themselves for support. He was
a kind and honest man, always hoping to succeed, but never succeeding;
always trying new scenes to build up his fortune and never building it.
Like other fathers, especially those who have been disappointed in life,
he had hopes that his boy would accomplish more than himself.
He wished to apprentice him to an attorney or to an iron manufacturer,
but Thomas saw no pleasure in Blackstone, or in handling ponderous iron.
A boy of tender feelings, he found little companionship with his
fellow-operatives, most of whom were rough; and he enjoyed most an old
Scotchman who could repeat ballads, and tell of the beautiful hills and
lakes of his native land. When he had leisure, he wandered with his
sister Sarah into the surrounding country; and while she sang, he
accompanied her with his flute.
With little opportunity for school, he was a great reader; and when
through with designs for calico for the day, he buried himself in
books, especially about foreign countries, and in imagination clambered
over high mountains, and sailed upon broad rivers. He talked much to the
family of the wonders of the New World; and when he was eighteen, they
all sailed for America. The father rented a little house and shop in
Philadelphia, and began to sell the small stock of dry-goods which he
had brought with him, while Thomas found work with a person who supplied
woodcuts for printers.
The father soon became dissatisfied with his prospects, and moved his
family to Steubenville, Ohio, where he hoped to find a land flowing with
milk and honey. Thomas remained behind, working on some illustrations
for Bunyan's "Holy War," keeping up his spirits with his beloved flute;
going to Steubenville the next year, walking almost the entire way from
Here he worked in his father's small manufactory of paper-hangings; yet
he had longings to do some great work in the world, as he wandered alone
in the wild and charming scenery. He loved music, architecture, and
pictures, but he hardly dared breathe his aspirations save in a few
verses of poetry. How in that quiet home a boy should be born who had
desires to win renown was a mystery. Nobody knows whence the perilous
but blessed gift of ambition comes.
About this time a portrait-painter by the name of Stein came to the
village. He took an interest in the poetic boy, and loaned him an
English illustrated work on painting. Thomas had already acquired some
skill in drawing. Now his heart was on fire as he read about Raphael,
Claude Lorraine, and Titian, and he resolved to make painting his
life-work. How little he knew of the obstacles before a poor artist!
He set to work to make his own brushes, obtaining his colors from a
chair-maker. His easel and palette were of his own crude manufacture.
The father had serious misgivings for his son; but his mother encouraged
him to persevere in whatever his genius seemed to lie. As a rule, women
discover genius sooner than men, and good Mary Cole had seen that there
was something uncommon in her boy. His brushes ready, putting his scanty
wearing apparel and his flute in a green baize bag, hung over his
shoulder, the youth of twenty-one started for St. Clairsville, thirty
miles distant, to begin life as a painter. He broke through the ice in
crossing a stream, and, wet to his breast, arrived at the town, only to
find that a German had just been there, and had painted all the
portraits which were desired.
However, a saddler was found who was willing to be painted, and after
five days of work from morning till night, the young artist received a
new saddle as pay. A military officer gave him an old silver watch for a
portrait, and a dapper tradesman a chain and key, which proved to be
copper instead of gold. For some other work he received a pair of shoes
and a dollar. All these, except the dollar, he was obliged to give to
his landlord for board, the man being dissatisfied even with this
From here Thomas walked one hundred miles to Zanesville, and to his
great sorrow, found that the German had preceded him here also, and
painted the tavern-keeper and his family. The landlord intimated that a
historical picture would be taken in payment for the young stranger's
board. Accordingly an impromptu studio was arranged. A few patrons came
at long intervals; but it was soon evident that another field must be
chosen. What, however, was young Cole's astonishment to find that the
historical painting would not be received for board, and that if
thirty-five dollars were not at once paid, he would be thrust into jail!
Two or three acquaintances became surety for the debt to the
unprincipled landlord, and the pale, slender artist hastened toward
Chillicothe with but a sixpence in his pocket.
After walking for three days, seventy-five miles, he sat down under a
tree by the roadside, wellnigh discouraged, in the hot August day; but
when the tears gathered in his eyes, he took out his flute, and playing
a lively air, his courage returned. He had two letters of introduction
in his pocket, given him at Zanesville, and these he would present,
whispering to himself that he must "hold up his head like Michael
Angelo" as he offered them. The men who received them had little time
or wish to aid the young man. A few persons sat for their portraits, and
a few took lessons in drawing; but after a time he had no money to pay
for washing his linen, and at last no linen even to be washed. Still
enthusiastic over art, and with visions of Italy floating in his mind,
yet penniless and footsore, he returned to Steubenville to tell his
sorrows to his sympathetic mother. How her heart must have been moved as
she looked upon her boy's pale face, and great blue eyes, and felt his
eager desire for a place of honor in the world, but knew, alas! that she
was powerless to aid him.
He took a plain room for a studio, painted some scenes for a society of
amateur actors, and commenced two pictures,--Ruth gleaning in the field
of Boaz, and the feast of Belshazzar. One Sunday, some vicious boys
broke into the studio, mixed the paints, broke the brushes, and cut the
paintings in pieces. Learning that the boys were poor, Cole could not
bear to prosecute them; and the matter was dropped. He soon departed to
Pittsburgh, whither his parents had moved, and began to assist his
father in making floor-cloths. Every moment of leisure he was down by
the banks of the Monongahela, carefully drawing tree, or cloud, or
Finally the old longing became irresistible. He packed his little trunk,
his mother threw over his shoulders the table cover, with her blessing
and her tears; and with six dollars in his purse, he said good-bye to
the family and started for Philadelphia. Then followed, as he used to
say in after years, the "winter of his discontent." In a poor quarter of
the city, in an upper room, without a bed or fire or furniture,
struggled poor Thomas Cole. Timid, friendless, his only food a baker's
roll and a pitcher of water, his only bedding at night the table cover,
he worked day by day, now copying in the Academy, and now ornamenting
bellows, brushes, or Japan ware, with figures of birds or with flowers.
Sometimes he ran down a neighboring alley, whipping his hands about him
to keep his blood in circulation, lest he be benumbed. He soon became
the victim of inflammatory rheumatism, and was a great sufferer. He
still saw before him, someway, somehow, renown. Meantime his pure, noble
soul found solace in writing poetry and an occasional story for the
"Saturday Evening Post." After a year and a half he put his goods on a
wheelbarrow, had them carried to the station, and started for New York,
whither his family had moved.
He was now twenty-four. Life had been one continuous struggle. Still he
loved each beauty in nature, and hoped for the good time to come. In his
father's garret in Greenwich Street, in a room so narrow that he could
scarcely work, and so poorly lighted that he was "perpetually fighting a
kind of twilight," he labored for two years. Obstacles seemed but to
increase his determination to persevere. Of such grand material are
His first five pictures were placed for exhibition in the shop of an
acquaintance, and were sold at eight dollars apiece. Through the
courtesy of a gentleman who purchased three of these, he was enabled to
go up the Hudson and sketch from nature among the Catskills. This was
indeed a great blessing. On his return, he painted "A View of Fort
Putnam," "Lake with dead trees," and "The Falls of the Caterskills."
These were purchased at twenty-five dollars apiece by three
artists,--Trumbull, Dunlap, and Durand.
Trumbull first discovered the merits of the pictures, buying the "Falls"
for his studio, and invited Cole to meet Durand at his rooms. At the
hour appointed the sensitive artist made his appearance, so timid that
at first he could only reply to their cordial questioning by
monosyllables. Colonel Trumbull said, "You surprise me, at your age, to
paint like this. You have already done what I, with all my years and
experience, am yet unable to do." Through the new friends, attention was
called to his work, and he soon had abundant commissions. How his hungry
heart must have fed on this appreciation! "From that time," said his
friend, William Cullen Bryant, "he had a fixed reputation, and was
numbered among the men of whom our country had reason to be proud. I
well remember what an enthusiasm was awakened by these early works of
his,--the delight which was expressed at the opportunity of
contemplating pictures which carried the eye over scenes of wild
grandeur peculiar to our country, over our arid mountain-tops with their
mighty growth of forest never touched by the axe, along the banks of
streams never deformed by culture, and into the depth of skies bright
with the hues of our own climate; such skies as few but Cole could ever
paint, and through the transparent abysses of which it seemed that you
might send an arrow out of sight."
The struggles were not all over, but the "renown" of which the
calico-designer had dreamed had actually come. Down in the heart of Mary
Cole there must have been deep thanksgiving that she had urged him on.
He with a few others now founded the National Academy of Design. He took
lodgings in the Catskills in the summer of 1826, and worked diligently.
He studied nature like a lover; now he sketched a peculiar sunset, now a
wild storm, now an exquisite waterfall. "Why do not the younger
landscape painters walk--walk alone, and endlessly?" he used to say.
"How I have walked, day after day, and all alone, to see if there was
not something among the old things which was new!" He knew every chasm,
every velvety bank, every dainty flower growing in some tanglewood for
miles around. American scenery, with its untamed wilderness, lake, and
mountain, was his chief passion. He found no pleasure, however, in
hunting or fishing; for his kind heart could not bear to inflict the
The following spring he exhibited at the National Academy the "Garden of
Eden and the Expulsion," rich in poetic conception; and in the fall
sketched in the White Mountains, especially near North Conway, which the
lamented Starr King loved so well. In the winter he was very happy,
finishing his "Chocorua Peak." A visitor said, "Your clouds, sir, appear
"That," replied the artist, "is precisely the effect I desire."
He was now eager to visit Europe to study art; but first he must see
Niagara, of which he made several sketches. He had learned the secret,
that all poets and artists finally learn,--that they must identify
themselves with some great event in history, something grand in nature,
or some immortal name. Milton chose a sublime subject, Homer a great
war, just as some one will make our civil war a famous epic two
In June, 1829, he sailed for Europe, and there, for two years, studied
faithfully. In London, he saw much of Turner, of whom he said, "I
consider him as one of the greatest landscape painters that ever lived,
and his 'Temple of Jupiter' as fine as anything the world has produced.
In landscapes, my favorites are Claude Lorraine, and Gaspar Poussin."
Some of Cole's work was exhibited at the British Gallery, but the autumn
coloring was generally condemned as false to nature! How little we know
about that which we have not seen!
Paris he enjoyed greatly for its clear skies and sunny
weather,--essentials usually to those of poetic temperament, though he
was not over pleased with the Venuses and Psyches of modern French art.
For nine months he found the "galleries of Florence a paradise to a
painter." He thought our skies more gorgeous than the Italian, though
theirs have "a peculiar softness and beauty." At Rome, some of his
friends said, "Cole works like a crazy man." He usually rose at five
o'clock, worked till noon, taking an hour for eating and rest, and then
sketched again till night.
There was a reason for this. The support of the family came upon him,
besides the payment of debts incurred by his father.
He felt that every hour was precious. In Rome, he found the Pantheon
"simple and grand"; the Apollo Belvidere "the most perfect of human
productions," while the Venus de Medici has "the excellence of feminine
form, destitute in a great measure of intellectual expression"; the
"Transfiguration," "beautiful in color and chiaroscuro," and Michael
Angelo's "Moses," "one of the things never to be forgotten."
On his return to New York he took rooms at the corner of Wall Street and
Broadway. Here he won the friendship of Luman Reed, for whom he promised
to paint pictures for one room, to cost five thousand dollars. The chief
pictures for Mr. Reed, who died before their completion, were five,
called "The Course of Empire," representing man in the different phases
of savage life, high civilization, and ruin through sin, the idea coming
to him while in Rome. Of this group, Cooper, the novelist, said, "I
consider the 'Course of Empire' the work of the highest genius this
country has ever produced, and one of the noblest works of art that has
ever been wrought."
In November, 1836, Mr. Cole was married to Maria Bartow, a young lady of
refinement and loveliness of character. Soon after, both of his parents
died. The "Departure and Return" were now painted, "among his noblest
works," says Bryant, followed by the "Voyage of Life," for Mr. Samuel
Ward, who, like Mr. Reed, died before the set was finished. This series
was sold in 1876 for three thousand one hundred dollars. These pictures
he had worked upon with great care and intensity. He used to say,
"Genius has but one wing, and, unless sustained on the other side by the
well-regulated wing of assiduity, will quickly fall to the ground. The
artist must work always; his eye and mind can work even when his pen is
idle. He must, like a magician, draw a circle round him, and exclude all
intrusive spirits. And above all, if he would attain that serene
atmosphere of mind in which float the highest conceptions of the soul in
which the sublimest works have been produced, he must be possessed of a
holy and reasonable faith."
The "Voyage of Life" was well received. The engraver, Mr. Smilie, found
one morning before the second of the series, "Youth," a person in middle
life looking as though in deep thought. "Sir," he said at length, "I am
a stranger in the city, and in great trouble of mind. But the sight of
these pictures has done me great good. I go away from this place
quieted, and much strengthened to do my duty."
In 1841, worn in health, Cole determined to visit Europe again. He wrote
from Kenilworth Castle to his wife, "Every flower and mass of ivy, every
picturesque effect, waked my regret that you were not by my side.... How
can I paint without you to praise, or to criticize, and little Theddy to
come for papa to go to dinner, and little Mary with her black eyes to
come and kiss the figures in the pictures?... My life will be burdened
with sadness until I return to my wife and family." In Rome he received
much attention, as befitted one in his position.
On his return, he painted several European scenes, the "Roman Campagna,"
"Angels Ministering to Christ in the Wilderness," "Mountain Ford" (sold
in 1876 for nine hundred dollars), "The Good Shepherd," "Hunter's
Return," "Mill at Sunset," and many others. For his "Mount Etna,"
painted in five days, he received five hundred dollars. How different
these days from that pitiful winter in Philadelphia!
He dreaded interruptions in his work. His "St. John the Baptist in the
Wilderness" was destroyed by an unexpected visit from some ladies and
gentlemen, who quenched the fire of heart in which he was working. He
sorrowfully turned the canvas to the wall, and never finished it. He had
now come to the zenith of his power, yet he modestly said, "I have only
learned how to paint." He built a new studio in the Catskills, in the
Italian villa style, and hoped to erect a gallery for several paintings
he had in contemplation, illustrating the cross and the world, and the
immortality of the soul.
But the overworked body at forty-seven years of age could no longer bear
the strain. On Saturday, Feb. 5, 1848, he laid his colors under water,
and cleansed his palette as he left his studio. The next day he was
seized with inflammation of the lungs. The following Friday, after the
communion service at his bedside, he said, "I want to be quiet." These
were his last words. The tired artist had finished his work. The voyage
of life was over. He had won enduring fame.