The Voyage of Life

Black clouds were moving in on the National Mall in Washington D.C. and heavy rain looked like it was going to drop at any moment. My girlfriend and I were unprepared. When we had left in the morning, neither of us had bothered to listen to the news to see what the weather was calling for or had thought to bring an umbrella. 

We did the only thing we could, we ran to the closest building, the National Gallery of Art, for cover. We figured we’d mill around the museum, let the clouds pass, and then get back to the rest of our weekend. 

My girlfriend led the way. We passed a few Victorian-era portraits and an exhibit on French painter Jean Siméon Chardin, a master of still life. I tried to look interested, I didn’t want to come across as an unsophisticated boor to my girlfriend, but I wasn’t finding the paintings all that appealing. And then we turned a corner. 

My demeanor changed 180 degrees; I went from being uninterested to “yell my name out loud three times to get my attention” fascinated. 

Where to look first?

We stood in front of English-born American artist Thomas Cole’s four-part series, The Voyage of Life, that traces a man’s voyage along the “River of Life,” portraying the innocence of Childhood, the confidence and ambition of Youth, the trials of Manhood, and the approach of death in Old Age

I didn’t know where to focus my attention. I found myself transported from the present to a place of introspection and contemplation on life and my small place in each of the different stages. I was still young in my mid-20s, all I had really accomplished so far was getting an education, but I was amazed thinking about all the different ways I could relate to the paintings.

As I stood there, I reflected on the challenges of moving from Youth to Manhood. I had already started to think that that my girlfriend was the one, the love of my life and the one that I would soon propose marriage. When I thought about some of the challenges I faced in my job, I could relate to the struggles facing the man in the Manhood pane. The paintings told the story of life, both its promise and pain, its moments of success and failure.


I am by no means an art connoisseur or critic. My knowledge of art is limited at best, but I found Cole, regarded as the first significant American landscape painter, and his work to be eye-opening. I couldn’t get enough of it. My girlfriend liked the paintings too, but I think she was more entertained looking at me as I tried to explain the emotions that welled up inside of me.

We eventually had to leave the gallery, but I made a date for us to come back. Of course, when we returned a few months later, the challenge of leaving became even harder because not only was I now infatuated with Cole’s work, but now with the work of German American painter Albert Bierstadt, best known for his sweeping landscapes of Yellowstone and the American West. For a small-town kid, new to the city, the artwork put down on a paper a power and excitement that I had never imagined. 

It’s my life

I liked Bierstadt’s work too, but my heart has stayed true to The Voyage of Life. It’s what I fell in love with first. I’ve come back to the series often over the years and it highlights my situation and gives me wisdom to handle what’s to come. I can’t speak to the approach or what Cole was thinking when he painted a particular scene, but I love that the series continues to speak to me and makes me feel something inside. 

Now isn’t that the purpose of art, whether it be a piece of written word or a painting on the wall!


Thank you for reading. Please follow the HoTM site and join in on the discussion. I’d love to hear your thoughts. In addition, please visit my personal blog at or follow me on Instagram at @writingfromtheheartwithbrian.

All the best, Brian.

Images courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

42 thoughts on “The Voyage of Life

      1. My favorite painting is Madame X (Sargent) because I see so much depth in the way he painted her. She’s a whole person. But as far as artist Monet…because the way he used color, and created patterns with subtlety…how it looks different depending on the angle, and how you always find something new every time you look

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      2. I love the thought you put into your answer. I’m so with you on Monet. Love how one color rolls into another into another. There’s so much depth to it. And sargeant I definitely need to look at that closer. Love how it’s so dark and focused all at the same time. I get what you mean about finding something new every time you look! Thanks for commenting!

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  1. Isn’t is incredible how art can speak to us so? There are certain songs–as simple as they may be–that could bring me to my knees. My boyfriend was a trained artist in a past life and loves Rembrandt. Though I hadn’t heard of Cole before, I notice similar dark and moody tones, with bursts of focused light on the painting’s protagonist. I’m not artist, but I sure do have an appreciation for the talent to not only craft, but to inject elements of the human experience and human emotion onto a 2D canvas or through a microphone. Such a wonderful and thought-provoking piece, Brian! It makes me want to go visit the art museum. 😊

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    1. Thank you so much, I’m like you, I’m not an artist, but I have so much appreciation for what they can do. I find it so amazing. One image from them, one brush stroke can have such a big impact . . . were it takes me word after word to create the same response. I’m glad I’m not the only one. Thanks so much for the comment.

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      1. I come back to the darker tones in the manhood pane a lot. For me, it’s all the danger areas – money worries, trying to be a good father, being a good spouse. But I love that in each of the paintings there’s an element of light that for me anyway represent hope and a higher being. I probably read way too much into what Cole was trying to accomplish, but give me time and an adult beverage I can wax poetic on the deeper meaning behind the various elements. Ha, ha.

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      2. Can you hear me laughing? I am! And with or without your adult beverage, I think you’re right — and maybe that’s why I picked such a dark background for the IG image today. Moody and I didn’t realize it was a reaction to the emotion from Cole’s work. Super cool! 😊😊😊

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  2. So many things to love about this piece, Brian. Most of all — and the inspiration for the Instagram graphic for this post – was your comment about Cole’s work speaking to you…making you feel something inside. I can’t imagine a finer compliment to the artist. Truly. Thank you for sharing with us. 💓💓💓

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    1. I agree wholeheartedly Vicki, I think that’s the greatest compliment to an artist, to say that their work touched you in a way you weren’t expecting. I liked art before that first visit, but I just remember being stunned. And yes, I love the IG graphic, a very cool image. Thank you so much for creating.

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  3. Beautiful, Brian! I’m unfamiliar with Cole, but will definitely have to check him out. And I love what you said about the art speaking to you. It’s amazing how that works. I suppose that’s why they say a picture is worth a thousand words. Loved this post, and will be looking up Cole!

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    1. I’m naturally jealous of photographers and artists. You take one look at their creations and you have a response. We writers have to use our words to paint a picture, to touch on an emotion. Too much information one way and we lose our reader, too much the other way and the reader grows bored. Now I love writing and I get immense joy from it . . . but there are times where I would love to be an artist. If only I had any talent at all. Ha, ha. Thanks so much Kendra for the comment. Appreciate you stopping by!

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  4. What a great post! Thank you for introducing me to Cole – what a great metaphor for a series of paintings.

    What I like best about this post is the way that you responded to the pull of the paintings, the impact they’ve had with you over time, the draw that made you relate to the work, and that you scheduled time to go back. I’d say that was a pretty lucky rainstorm! 🙂 ❤

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    1. Oh, I’m all sophisticated now. Ha, ha. I remember at the time rolling my eyes when we walked into the art gallery. I was thinking that I was going to be bored. In fact, I’m pretty sure we were looking (at my insistence) for a place to get something to drink, when we stumbled across the Cole exhibit. My wife laughs at me now. Yes, it was a very fortunate rainstorm. We loved DC for the free museums, it was a great way to spend a weekend. We try to get back at least once or twice a year. Thanks for commenting!

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  5. Art is evocative if we open ourselves to it, as you did Brian. I love that it brings out emotional reactions but also that it makes me think and ask questions, and even sometimes invent my own stories about the artist and their purpose. I dearly wish all museums could be free so that everyone could have the opportunity to find art that speaks to them in some way. Thank you for sharing your impressions of Cole’s art and how it spoke to you.

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    1. Oh I definitely need to check out more of his work now! Sounds interesting! I’m amazed how his sparse (as in abstract) paintings can draw out such emotion. Wow, I must admit to a certain amount of jealousy, I try to achieve the same thing and it takes me 690 words and the best reaction I get is “oh, how sad, okay I guess it’s time for lunch.” Ha, ha, thanks for passing along the story, much appreciated!

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  6. WOW, Brian, what a powerful experience of embracing the story of life, both its promise and pain, its moments of success and failure as you eloquently noted. 👏🏼 Art, music, and poetry are some of the genres that capture our attention and connect so intimately with our spirit. 🤗💖🥰 You summed it up divinely my friend, “Now isn’t that the purpose of art, whether it be a piece of written word or a painting on the wall!”

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  7. I’m not familiar with Cole, but will now check him out. I love wandering around art galleries and museums because you just don’t know what’s going to catch your attention, and sometimes it’s not what you expect.
    Mind you, I can also get captured by some of the buildings, their architecture, their stories too.

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      1. Okay now…you’re going to worry about me when I say ‘same’ once again. What a beautiful structure that is. I’m desperate to get back there one day…thanks for sharing that, dear Brenda! Maybe we can daydream together! 😊

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