Saturday, May 11, 2013

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Then, he also said, "Dare to live the life you have dreamed for yourself. Go forward and make your dreams come true." Emerson continued, "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." He had many more such adages, but I think it fair to say that, "Life is not about the giving and taking of advice, it is the living of life that matters."

The old man has always tried to follow this advice. So, "Sally forth!"

What Emerson expressed in words, Thomas Cole expressed visually in his series The Voyage of Life. View The Voyage of Life show by the National Gallery of Art.

Cole was the founder of the Hudson School of Art, a mid-19th century group of artists who combined realism with a touch of romanticism. The old man merely mentions this because elsewhere he is writing of the early Dutch settlers along the Hudson River. The old man knows that we all start life with a romantic notion that life will be beautiful. It is reality that rears its head and reminds us of the daily struggle to keep that notion of beauty and good in a world that sometimes can be evil.

Detail The Voyage of Life, by Thomas Cole, infant

The first time the old man saw the series, The Voyage of Life,  by Thomas Cole, he was living in Washington D.C.. The old man was still young, not yet thirty, working at the Department of Justice as an attorney. The job in the Criminal Tax Division took him to Alaska and Oregon. It was a great way to travel and see more of the world, and only occasionally taking someone to court if they had not paid their fair share in support of the American way of life.

Detail, The Voyage of Life, by Thomas Cole, youth

When not on the road, and in Washington D.C., the old man used to wander across the street from the Department of Justice to the National Gallery of Art. Thomas Cole painted the series of four images in 1842. The paintings follow a voyager on his journey through life - child, youth, manhood, and old man. The voyager is accompanied on his journey by a guardian angel, but as the paintings depict, the voyager is not always in control of his journey and the angel is not always there to help.

Detail, The Voyage of Life, by Thomas Cole, manhood

 Hold on! The ride is exciting, but the outcome is not always certain. We have to navigate through some tricky currents now and then, but would you want it any other way?

The old man won't tell you how it ends. To learn that the old man would have to be omniscient, which he is not. But then maybe the not knowing is what makes life worth living.

[ Note. All images in the public domain. The National Gallery of Art has a wonderful website where you can see many of the images in its collection, but not these. Instead, one can go to Wikipedia Commons and find all four in the series.]

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