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The Voyage of Life

The Voyage of Life

The Sacred Vision of Thomas Cole

By Addison Hodges Hart

116 pp

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About the Book

In his famous series of four paintings, the great American “father” of the Hudson River School of art, Thomas Cole (1801–1848), depicted the life of a single representative human Soul as a voyage from birth to death—each painting illustrating a further bend in the river of life: Childhood, Youth, Manhood, and finally, Old Age. Cole supplemented his series with a long poem (reproduced at the end of this volume) along the lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy or Newman’s Dream of Gerontius, elucidating the meaning of his art. Drawing upon these resources together with the religious and philosophical influences of his time, Addison Hodges Hart succeeds in making The Voyage of Life poignantly applicable to us in the here and now. In Hart’s masterful hands, Cole’s masterpiece comes alive as timeless wisdom, insight, even contemplative counsel. Like all genuine art, Cole’s series communicates one human soul’s truth to another, regardless of the distance in space, time, or worldview that may separate them. 


“Addison Hodges Hart has given us a compelling meditation on the meaning of the nineteenth-century American painter Thomas Cole’s famous four-part allegory The Voyage of Life. With keen insight, graceful language, and breadth of learning, Hart offers a fresh reading of the series that goes well beyond the customary biographical, theological, or topical interpretations of these pictures. Drawing upon the ideas and sentiments expressed in Cole’s eponymous poem, Hart demonstrates why this allegorical series is as relevant for humankind today as they were for Cole himself, and for the generations who have treasured them. Readers will find much to think about in Hart’s persuasive assessment of how The Voyage of Life may serve as a useful guide to the meaning of life, and how to live it.”


Director Emeritus, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute 


“Ever since Sally Promey’s 2003 article ‘On the “Return” of Religion in the Scholarship of American Art,’ the field of art history has been primed for something like this: a reclamation of an American masterwork as accessible and illuminating as the original work itself. Addison Hodges Hart shows that Thomas Cole countered the seductions of an outward Manifest Destiny by counseling an inward journey instead. Cole emerges in this satisfying volume not only as an artist but as a mystic; not only as painter but as a psychopomp; not only as the founder of the Hudson River School, but as a cartographer of the soul’s journey to God.”


Professor of Art History, Wheaton College, author of Mother of the Lamb: The Story of a Global Icon


“Addison Hart’s new book, The Voyage of Life, explores Thomas Cole’s spiritual vision and commitment to creating in his series of four large paintings of the same name the individual Soul’s journey through life from Childhood to Old Age. The author offers an engaging and thorough evaluation of each painting in connection also with Cole’s poetry—something most likely new to many readers. Cole’s passion to place his human voyager in the still-existing American wilderness of the 1830s may prompt reflection on the current challenge of becoming better stewards of our home on earth.”


author of The Hudson River School


“This book, an emotionally wise and theologically rich contemplation of Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life series of four large canvases, is a rare delight. Not unlike Virgil leading Dante, Addison Hart guides us on a river journey through the stages of life depicted in Cole’s untamed and sublime Romantic landscapes of the American West: from the innocence of Childhood, through the exuberance of Youth and the trials of Manhood, to our Old Age and final destination in eternity. It is an allegory of the quest for wisdom every bit as intelligible to our heart as that described in Dante’s Divine Comedy or Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.”


author of The Book of Angels: Seen and Unseen and The Green Man in Medieval England 


“Addison Hodges Hart has done a great service with his The Voyage of Life: The Sacred Vision of Thomas Cole. Indeed, he creates art from art, prose from paint and poem. Prior to reading Hart’s laconic yet inspiring title, I had not heard of Thomas Cole. After reading it, I want to know more! From the moment I read the following, I was hooked: ‘Cole was not only alert to the details and wonders of nature but possessed and cultivated a profound empathy with it.’ The same could be said about all who, like the Hobbits of J.R.R. Tolkien, feel a sense of deep connection and relationality with the earth below their feet.”


author of The Wisdom of Hobbits

About the Author

ADDISON HODGES HART is the author of nine previous books, including biblical commentary, studies in spirituality and interfaith contemplative traditions, and a novel (Confessions of the Antichrist) published by Angelico Press. He is a retired university chaplain and vicar, now residing in Norway with his wife, Catholic iconographer Solrunn Nes. He is a member of the Church of England. He also has a lively, easy-to-access Substack page, The Pragmatic Mystic, that deals with topics related to his books

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