Like Sands through the Hourglass…

Our exhibition, Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life has now been open for about a month, and I have just loved having the opportunity to pop in the galleries and enjoy snippets of time with these incredible paintings.  There are different things to take away from the series—the change in seasons, the change in the time of day, the change in landscape, etc.  But I think the most poignant lesson to be learned from The Voyage of Life concerns the passage of time.  This is seen through the man in the boat progressing from infancy to old age, and it’s all reinforced through that ancient symbol—the hourglass.     

Caption: Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Childhood (detail), 1839-40; Oil on canvas; Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art, Utica, NY; purchase, 55.105 

As a pretty die-hard fan of Days of Our Lives, I must confess that the hourglass symbols caught my eye from the get-go.  In the first painting of the four-part series, Childhood, it’s a beautiful spring morning.  The baby playfully floats in his gilded boat, guided by an angel.  Here, his life is just beginning, full of promise, and the hourglass that adorns his boat is full at the top.     

Caption: Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Youth (detail), 1840; Oil on canvas; Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art, Utica, NY; purchase, 55.105 

As the child continues his journey on the “river of life,” he arrives at Youth, full of energy and promise.  He leaves the angel behind, presumably to go toward his “castle in the sky” (literally and figuratively).  But the sand starting to collect at the bottom of the hourglass lets us know that youth does not last forever, and that things will certainly change for this young man.     

Caption: Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Manhood (detail), 1840; Oil on canvas; Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art, Utica, NY; purchase, 55.105 

And boy do they ever!  In Manhood, our journeyman has now his rough waters and stormy skies.  The sand in the hourglass is now nearly completely at the bottom, and facing death, the man turns to prayer to save his life.     

Caption: Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Old Age (detail), 1840; Oil on canvas; Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art, Utica, NY; purchase, 55.105 

So as you can probably guess by now, the story of The Voyage of Life ends with the end of the subject’s life.  Now an old man, he faces his guardian angel as the heavenly host open up the skies before him.  As his life has now ended, the prow of the boat has been broken off, the hourglass presumably shattered.  Our drama has come to an end, but, like any good soap opera, it was full of twists, turns, and lessons learned—the days of this man’s life.

- Julie Pierotti, Dixon Curator

Posted by Chantal Drake at 3:12 PM
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