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Chrysler Museum Becomes "Thomas Cole Central" with Monumental Works from "Voyage of Life" and Chrysler Collection

  • NORFOLK, Virginia
  • /
  • October 20, 2014

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Thomas Cole (American, 1801–1848) The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds, 1833–34. Oil on canvas, 101 1/2 x 185 1/2 in. Gift of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., in memory of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch. Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Va.

It’s the story of Everyman, beautifully told by one of the founding fathers of American art. The Chrysler Museum of Art presents Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life, a special exhibition of some of the finest—and largest—works by our country’s greatest landscape painter. This show will be on view from October 21, 2014 through January 18, 2015. Admission is free.

The centerpiece of this exhibition is the iconic series The Voyage of Life (1839–40), the most famous and beloved work of landscape master Thomas Cole (1801–1848). Spanning four monumental canvases, The Voyage of Life takes viewers on a journey through Childhood, Youth, Manhood, and Old Age, presenting each stage as the progress of an everyday voyager along a grand but treacherous river. These masterpieces from the collection of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art in Utica, N.Y., are rarely loaned to other museums, and they embark on this historic tour together with a choice group of seldom-exhibited preliminary studies and early prints. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.

The Voyage of Life completes a monumental year in the history of the Chrysler,” says Erik Neil, who becomes the Museum’s Director in October. “In May, Florentijn Hofman’s Rubber Duck helped us reopen our expanded and renovated building with a splash. Now this exhibition of masterworks by Thomas Cole reiterates our commitment to bringing art of great historical importance and the highest quality to our community.”

Thomas Cole (American, 1801–1848) The Voyage of Life: Childhood, 1839-40. Oil on canvas, 52 x 78 in. Museum Purchase, 55.105 Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Museum of Art, Utica, N.Y.

The Voyage of Life is the finest and most celebrated example of what Cole called a “higher style of landscape,” through which he aimed to illustrate moral messages with the beauty of nature. The artist began his career with illustrations of the forests, rivers, and mountains of Hudson River Valley and Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. Based on these works, Cole is remembered as the inventor of the Hudson River School of landscape painting and one of the first artists to define a distinctly American style of art. Cole, however, always aspired to be more than “a mere leaf painter.” Thus, for this monumental series, he combined his expertise in landscape painting with an epic story of faith and perseverance, celebrating nature as a source of religious and poetic inspiration.

This series was widely admired, and reproductions of it decorated parlors throughout America in the mid- and late-1800s. The Chrysler’s exhibition traces not only the creation of The Voyage of Life, but also the spread of its popularity thanks to the new technologies of printmaking and photography. In 1842 Cole added to its fame by painting a second version of the series, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

“It’s an unbelievable opportunity,” says Alex Mann, the Chrysler’s Brock Curator of American Art. “Works of this size and importance almost never leave their home museums, and we are so lucky to bring Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life to Norfolk.”

Thomas Cole (American, 1801–1848) The Voyage of Life: Old Age, 1840. Oil on canvas, 51 3/4 x 78 1/4 in. Museum Purchase, 55.108 Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Museum of Art, Utica, N.Y.

To enhance the exhibition, the Chrysler will hang the paintings opposite its own Thomas Cole masterpiece, The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds (1833–34). While works in The Voyage of Life are each over seven feet wide framed, The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds is the largest single canvas that Cole ever painted, covering almost 16 horizontal feet of wall space.

“The scale of these works is breathtaking,” says Mann. “Cole wanted his audiences to lose themselves in these stories. The paintings are so big that you have to move around to see all of their details. You have to walk, to physically take a journey. They’re interactive.”

Although The Voyage of Life exhibition will be on view in other American cities, The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds is unlikely ever to travel, due to its size and fragility, Mann noted. The painting once belonged to the Boston Athenaeum, but after being rolled up in storage for generations, it was purchased by Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. in 1980 and immediately given to the Chrysler Museum. Scholars have written about similarities between this work and The Voyage of Life, but the paintings have never before been exhibited collectively. This makes the Norfolk exhibition a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these Cole masterworks together.

“We alone are uniting an artist’s early masterpiece with his signature achievement,” says Mann. “In one, we see youthful ambition and potential. On the opposite wall, we have mature talent and professional triumph. It will be spectacular!”

Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life will be on view in the Penny and Peter Meredith Gallery, a newly expanded and refurbished space in the heart of the Museum’s Brock Wing of American Art. The show will include an interactive touch-screen kiosk for deeper exploration of Cole’s life and career, and The Museum Shop will offer a beautifully illustrated, 80-page exhibition catalogue for sale ($24.99).


The Chrysler also is hosting special programs related to the Cole exhibition:


Sunday, November 16 at 2 p.m.

Lecture, “The Spiritual Journey” by the Rev. Canon Win Lewis, Christ and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Norfolk, Va., in the Chrysler Museum’s Kaufman Theater, followed by a Gallery Talk by Alex Mann, Brock Curator of American Art, Chrysler Museum of Art, in the Meredith Gallery (G. 211). Admission is free.


Wednesday, November 19 at 11 a.m.

Norfolk Society of Arts Lecture, “Thomas Cole’s Course of American Politics in the 1830s” by Dr. Brian T. Allen of the New-York Historical Society, in the Chrysler Museum’s Kaufman Theater. Admission is free, with priority seating for NSA members.


Throughout the exhibition

Free guided tours for college groups. To schedule a docent- or curator-led tour, contact Ruth Sanchez in the Education Department at (757) 333-6269 or

Tags: American art

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