Thomas Cole. Oil on canvas, 1840, 52 ½ x 78 ½ in. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY, 55.106.
These sketches in oil and graphite demonstrate the process by which Cole created the figures in The Voyage of Life. Cole’s limited experience in drawing from live models no doubt hindered his ability to render the human form. As a largely self-taught figure painter, Cole did not have many opportunities to study human anatomy—unlike many of his contemporaries, who had undertaken full courses of study at fine arts academies. As a result, human figures and facial expressions often eluded him. In a letter to Cornelius Ver Bryck of 1840, he wrote:
You ask me how the Voyage of Life is progressing. The Angel’s face has given me a great deal of trouble. Angels’ visits to me are really so few and far between that I forget their features. Sometimes the expression would be sulky, sometimes cross, and sometimes silly. I have at length, finished one which I suppose will be found a compound of all the expressions of which I have spoken. But I will not disparage myself. I hope the picture is the most complete one I have ever painted. I should be happy to have you see it. I want other eyes: mine are accustomed to the picture. 1
In these numerous sketches, Cole reworked the faces and figures of the Angel and the Youth many times until at last he was satisfied with their appearance. 2
1. Thomas Cole, <cite>Figure Study for The Voyage of Life: Youth</cite>, oil and graphite on canvas, 1839-40, 25 ¼ x 20 ¾ in. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY, 2001.41.1. View in Virtual Gallery
2. Thomas Cole, <cite>Standing Classical Figure</cite>, graphite pencil on yellow beige tracing paper, c. 1839-40, 7 3/8 x 4 in. Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, William H. Murphy Fund, 39.516. View in Virtual Gallery
3. Thomas Cole, <cite>Study for the Guardian Angel in The Voyage of Life: Youth</cite>, oil on canvas, c. 1839-40, 10 ¾ & 8 ¼ in. Collection of Mr. John M. Bransten, San Francisco, CA. View in Virtual Gallery
4. Thomas Cole, <cite>The Voyage of Life: Youth (First Set)</cite>, oil on canvas, 1840, 52 ½ x 78 ½ in. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY, 55.106.