Thomas Cole. Oil on canvas, 1840, 52 ½ x 78 ½ in. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY, 55.106.
James Smillie, The Voyage of Life: Youth, hand-colored engraving and etching after Thomas Cole, 1850, 15 3/16 x 22 11/16 in. Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, gift of the estate of Matthew Vassar, X.153. View in Scrapbook
After Cole's unexpected death in February 1848, the reputation of The Voyage of Life increased dramatically, and the Ward family was able to sell it to the American Art-Union only a few months after the artist's passing. This organization promoted American art by buying works and distributing them to its members via a lottery. Art-Union members also received engraved reproductions of significant American paintings. Youth—always the most popular of the four paintings—was selected as an offering for a print edition of 20,000. The Engraving Committee engaged James Smillie, "believing him to be superior to any other artist in the country in this department." The fact that they agreed to pay Smillie an astonishing $2500 to reproduce Cole's painting underscores how important this commission was in promoting their organization. Eventually, Smillie made prints of the other three pictures as well, and it was primarily these engraved images that made The Voyage of Life famous throughout America. 1
In the 1850s, the original paintings graced the walls of the Abbott's Collegiate Institution for Young Ladies in New York City (a pioneering precursor to Vassar College), demonstrating how The Voyage of Life was thought to be appropriate for a young woman's artistic and moral education. In fact, a replica of Youth is in the Vassar College collection, from the estate of the founder. But by the late nineteenth century, Cole's allegorical works had fallen out of favor with the elite and had become symbols of lowbrow taste. Edith Wharton's character, Lily Bart, scorns Cole's series in The House of Mirth (1905):
Lily knew people who 'lived like pigs,' and their appearance and surroundings justified her mother's repugnance to that form of existence. They were mostly cousins, who inhabited dingy houses with engravings from Cole's "Voyage of Life" on the drawing-room walls, and slatternly parlour-maids who said, 'I'll go and see' to visitors calling at an hour when all right-minded persons are conventionally if not actually out. 2
The Voyage of Life's popular appeal persisted well into the twentieth century, however, and appeared in a surprising context: as part of the set decor for an early "talking picture," The Jazz Singer (1927). In a key scene, a cantor's son turned Broadway entertainer has a tearful reunion with his mother. On the living room wall is a reproduction of Cole's The Voyage of Life: Youth. With renewed interest in the Hudson River School—and Cole's work in particular—in the second half of the twentieth century, The Voyage of Life was restored to its status as one of the key landmarks in American art.