In The Voyage of Life - Old Age, Cole explores the final stage of human life. The artist did the paintings in such a way that one is a continuation of the other. It begins with a man emerging from the mouth of a river on a boat and travels through it. Cole is trying to show the journey across the river of life.
End of the Journey
In Old Age, the man is completing the journey as the calm of the river depicts. He is past the rough waters and the boat is floating undisturbed. The sky is full of dark clouds except for a bright light that shines from heaven. It looks like the skies are opening up to let angels come down. One of them is just below the clouds. A guardian angel seems to be guiding the man to leave the boat and follow. Cole used the American wilderness for the series of paintings. Old Age features a rocky river bank and cliffs in the distance. The guardian angel is in a white flowing gown that contrasts beautifully with the blood-red garb that the man is wearing.
Allegory at Its Best
The Voyage of Life series is all about comparison. Cole used the four seasons of the year as a background for the paintings. Each season represents the beginning and end of a different stage of a person's existence. The contrast between the natural environment and the celestial one above represents the connection between this life and the next. By showing only a bit of the man's surroundings, Cole is expressing the finality of this stage. The man has no use for earthly things anymore because he is looking forward to better alternatives. His outstretched arms are reaching out to the angel, indicating eagerness.
When describing the scene in Old Age, Cole once explained that the chains of corporeal existence were falling off and the mind could glimpse immortal life. Each painting in the series had a Christian element to it. Here, Cole is showing that the man's faith through the hard times is finally paying off. The American artist had a reputation for using landscape painting to express universal truths. Cole takes some credit for starting the Hudson River School, an 18th-century art movement that combined the natural environment with Romanticism.
The Voyage of Life was commissioned work. Samuel Ward offered Cole $5,000 for the four pieces, which he planned to display at his gallery. Ward, a New York banker, was a religious man who intended for the paintings to provide moral lessons for whoever viewed them, especially his children. Unfortunately, Ward died before Cole could complete the works. Currently, The Voyage of Life - Old Age is at the National Gallery Museum.