The Voyage of Life: My Favorite Art Works in D.C.



We lived in D.C. (both inside and outside the Beltway) for 5 years, and during that time we always had at least 2 preschoolers, sometimes 3. If it wasn’t at the ‘Space Museum’ or the ‘Dinosaur Museum’, we couldn’t stay long. Art museums were terrifying to even attempt with them, so like most parents, we just didn’t.

One year I sent the boys to stay with their grandparents for a week, and I had the rare opportunity to wander the District alone. It was a BLAST!! I adored every minute of it.

That was the year I walked into a genealogy conference at the National Archives and became hooked. It was also the year that I discovered the under appreciated jewel that is the Smithsonian art galleries. My favorites were the National Gallery of Art, located on the Mall, and the National Portraiture Gallery, located closer to Chinatown.

While browsing through the National Gallery, I came across Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life Series. I was frozen to the spot, studying each individual painting. It’s a series of 4 enormous canvases, packed full of meaning and inspiration.

When we went back to D.C. this summer, Alan photographed all 4 of them for me to share on my blog, and I got to explain them all to the boys and their friends.

Do you know what tells the story of life, both present and past fathoms better than any museum full of relics??

Our art!!! I felt far more in touch with American history at the American Art and Portraiture Gallery than I ever did at the American History Museum. It’s a genuinely moving experience. I highly encourage you to visit an art gallery of this caliber if you ever get a chance!

The Voyage of Life, painted by Thomas Cole, located in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Beginning of Life 

In this first painting, the baby is arriving to earth, escorted by his guardian angel. Heaven is dark and unimportant to him, but the earth is in full bloom, filled with endless possibilities. The cave behind him shelters him from harm.


Me, explaining the paintings


I love this one. Youth on the river of life…lovely and green with a brilliant castle in the sky. Life is a grand adventure.


Manhood…’s not so easy anymore..

This man is not in his 20s anymore. The river of life has gotten rocky, and there are dangerous rapids and rain all around. His focus turns upward as he prays for help.


Old Age

Now he is an old man. Things of this world have grown dark and no longer hold their appeal. He is headed towards Heaven. It is the light at the end! The plaque beside the painting explains more:



Next time you tour D.C., don’t skip the National Gallery of Art. There are actually 2 original sets of this series, as Cole painted TWO. The other one is kept in New York.

This series has my heart!! I cannot fully explain it. I hope you enjoy it too.






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