American Artists Arts & Letters Features

Artful Stories of Historic New England

Historic New England is the largest regional heritage organization in America today. Founded in 1910, it was the earliest organization of its type with a focus on the preservation and continued use of properties of historic significance. Historic New England aims to educate the public on their archives and collections and engage in public outreach by establishing house museums—working with homeowners and communities to protect buildings and landscapes.

With a collection of over a million records of photographs, homes, paintings, objects, sculptures, and documents, Historic New England has been able to tell the most complete story of how New Englanders lived from the 17th century to today. There are over 6,500 works of fine art housed across the New England states. Recognizing the importance of their collection, and to engage with the public, “Artful Stories” has brought together works from ten different house museums as well as a number of works from Historic New England’s storage.

The exhibition is held at the historic Eustis Estate in Milton, Massachusetts—a jewel of late-19th-century American architecture built in 1878. The estate was designed by William Ralph Emerson, prominent American architect and cousin of transcendentalist American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Not only was Emerson of the eponymous family, he was a close friend of leading Boston painter William Morris Hunt, and he collaborated with American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. It was a time of cultural renaissance in America, when bronze foundries produced full-scale works on American soil for the first time, and the cities were filling with Neoclassical architecture.

Eustis Estate, Milton, Mass. Public Domain.

Curated by Nancy Carlisle (Historic New England’s Senior Curator of Collections) and Peter Trippi (European art historian and editor-in-chief at Fine Art Connoisseur), “Artful Stories” explores regional stories told through art. Rather than simply showcasing Historic New England’s best paintings and sculptures, the curators selectively chose artists, portraits, and settings to give the artwork and theme a larger sense of context. As Carlisle noted, the experience of curating a show like this reveals new information every time you scratch at the surface of history.

The exhibition was well planned, but just as society had to contend with the pandemic lockdowns, so did “Artful Stories.” They quickly pivoted to online programming and immersive 360-degree videos. Karla Rosenstein, the site manager of the Eustis Estate, shared that “from the beginning, we had planned to utilize the interactive touchscreens to add extra multimedia materials to ‘Artful Stories,’ so we luckily had already been developing some online content for the exhibition.” As it became clear that they would not be able to open up as scheduled, they wanted to provide an online preview that was a full version of the exhibition. “While working from home, we created a far more robust version than we had initially planned” added Rosenstein.

“Homeward Bound” by John George Brown, New York, 1878. Oil on canvas. Gift of Ralph May.

The curators chose to present the works in a variety of themes across four galleries. The first gallery, “Land & Sea,” is a survey of the historical geography of New England. The second gallery, “At Home in New England,” showcases how and why the people of New England came to settle there, while the third gallery, “New England’s People,” reveals the cast of characters involved. The fourth gallery, “Wide World,” is about how the New Englanders interacted with people and places outside their region.

Unlike other exhibitions that would source works from outside their collection, Rosenstein noted, “it was very fortunate that this show was entirely from Historic New England’s collection as we did not need to negotiate date changes with other institutions.” The gallery was open to in-person visits in October 2020 and welcomed small groups of visitors to enjoy the exhibit. “We had a good number of members eager to attend it and get back into our museums,” added Rosenstein. “We also found ways to pivot our planned programming online and hosted a series of conversations between the curators and scholars, artists, and other curators that was attended by far more people than we would have expected in person.”

The show is full of interesting distinctions—a striking, perfect copy of Vigée LeBrun’s self portrait was a surprise for Carlisle. “The copy of Vigée’s portrait was by Elizabeth Adams, an artist about whom we knew nothing. During our research, we discovered who she was and the lengths she went to receive professional training.”

Copy of “Self-Portrait of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun” by Elizabeth Adams, Florence, Italy, 1865–74. Oil on canvas. Gift of the artist’s nephew, Boylston Adams Beal.

As our collective American [MISSING NOUN] shifted so much throughout 2020, this allowed the curators to examine some of the asymmetries of the past, confronting the history of race and social class through the lens of today. Two such landscape paintings are hung in the first gallery, “Land & Sea.” One painting is a tight, Hudson-River-School-influenced panorama by the son of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, while the other is a pure Barbizon, Romantic landscape by an African-American barber who had to strive for his training as a painter. On these two paintings, Peter Trippi noted “the contrast between the landscapes painted by Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow and his neighbor (on the wall), Edward Mitchell Bannister—what different life journeys they had, but they both ended up being talented painters flourishing in New England at the same time!” Truly, one of the most important aspects of representational painting is its ability to transcend setting and social class and rely on truth, skill, and beauty.

Left: “View of Boston Across the Flats” by Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow, Boston, 1876. Oil on canvas. Gift of D. Codman. Right: “Woman Reading Under a Tree” by Edward Mitchell Bannister, probably R.I., 1880–85. Oil on canvas.

Throughout the show, there are a number of thoughtful arrangements and connections made that came to light through their research. In gallery four, “Wide World,” there is a wall which showcases not only the talent and skill of the artists, but the ingenuity and distinction of the American art patrons during the late 19th century. One is a portrait painting of Richard Norton by Italian artist Antonio Mancini. Hanging next to it is Edward Burne-Jones’ portrait of Sara Norton, Richard’s sister. These two paintings couldn’t be more stylistically distinct; Edward Burne-Jones was a Pre-Raphaelite, a classicist in the truest sense of the word, and Mancini an innovator, regarded by American artist John Singer Sargent as the greatest living painter of the time.

Left: “Richard Norton” by Antonio Mancini, Rome, c. 1905. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Susan Norton, the sitter’s daughter. Right: “Sara Norton” by Edward Burne-Jones, London, 1884. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Susan Norton, the sitter’s niece.

The simple fact that these two now hang side-by-side in contrast to each other displays the power of patronage—allowing the artists to fully express their vision of the subject, rather than attempting to impose their own aesthetics onto their likeness. This is further driven home by their accompanying painting on the wall, “St. Servan Harbor” by Edward Darley Boit. Best remembered as the patron who commissioned John Singer Sargent to paint his four daughters (housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston), Boit was also an accomplished painter in his own right.

“St. Servan Harbor” by Edward Darley Boit, Dinard, Brittany, France, 1882. Oil on canvas. Gift of Dorothy S. F. M. Codman.

Throughout the exhibition, there are multimedia opportunities to learn more about the various artists and subjects. For those residing outside of New England, the website offers one of the most complete possible viewing experiences online. “Artful Stories” is both a truthful retelling of the Northeast’s history and an important chapter in cultural preservation, which Historic New England continues to champion. The exhibit has been extended until October 17th, 2021.

American Artists Arts & Letters Features

‘The Voyage of Life’

America’s first great landscape painter, Thomas Cole, was a pivotal figure in the development of a distinctly American artistic identity in the early 19th century. Cole’s masterful landscapes range from picturesque compositions of America’s pristine wilderness to imaginative historical and allegorical scenes. The revered artist’s devotion to seeking the presence of God in nature inspired him to create depictions of divinity within the world and the human experience.

A prime example of this undertaking, and one of Cole’s most renowned series, “The Voyage of Life,” is a group of four paintings that illustrate the major stages in a man’s life: “Childhood,” “Youth,” “Manhood,” and “Old Age.”

The series was commissioned by wealthy banker Samuel Ward for his private residence. Ward, a religious man, hired Cole to portray the faith-based view of a man’s allegorical path through life ending in salvation. Ward died shortly after the commission commenced, but Cole continued work on the series with the new intention of showing them to the public. In his later years, Cole was an increasingly religious man, to which this series is a testament. Regardless of your faith, “The Voyage of Life” captures a journey through different seasons, challenges, and the varying mental, emotional, and physical states we experience as we ride the river of life.


“The Voyage of Life: Childhood” by Thomas Cole circa 1842. National Gallery of Art.
Detail of Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life: Childhood.

Cole originally worked on “The Voyage of Life: Childhood” when he was in his late 30s in 1839–40. This first landscape of the series symbolizes man’s birth into the world. A baby whom Cole called “the Voyager” is the passenger on a boat being guided down a river by an angelic figure. The front of the boat has an hourglass that is held by one of many angelic carvings whom Cole called “the Hours.” A shadowy cavern at the base of a massive rocky mountain, whose precipice is lost in clouds, gives the viewer the sense that the child has been delivered into this world of time from a mystery beyond it. The rosy light of sunrise casts an inviting glow on a vast and verdant landscape. Lush foliage and vibrant flowers greet the child on the banks of the calmly flowing river.

The child holds his arms outstretched joyously clenching flowers as he sits on a lush green bed of foliage that fills the boat. His guiding angel looks down lovingly while navigating the child into this colorful and wondrous new world. The painting symbolizes the optimism and mystery of childhood. Everything is fresh and filled with amazement. It is the dawn of existence for Cole’s voyager that is symbolized by the glow of morning light and the abundant natural flourishing of spring.


“The romantic beauty of youthful imaginings, when the mind elevates the Mean and Common into the Magnificent, before experience teaches what is the Real.” – Thomas Cole

“The Voyage of Life: Youth” by Thomas Cole circa 1842. National Gallery of Art.
Detail of Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life: Youth.

Cole completed “The Voyage of Life: Youth” along with the rest of the series in 1840. In this second painting, the landscape has opened up to reveal the course of the river through lofty trees and distant hills that elevate into soaring mountains. The voyager has now confidently taken the helm of the boat and looks longingly forward, pointing toward a glowing palace of clouds in the sky. For Cole, this symbolized “the daydreams of youth, its aspirations after glory and fame.” The young man seems to rush toward his lofty goals unconscious that he seems to have left his angelic guide behind him on the shore.

The landscape of “Youth” is enticingly gorgeous and teeming with life. The many flowers of childhood have been replaced with the ambition of mighty trees. A spirit of adventure and lust for the glories of life are pervasive in the painting. The boy charts a course for the palace in his mind without noticing that the river makes a sharp turn in the distance. It flows toward the right side of the painting where rocky cliffs await the voyager foreshadowing the third painting in the series. The naiveté and optimism of youth are going to be challenged by the realities of manhood. Cole seems to imply that wisdom and humility are the result of tempering the beautiful, yet inexperienced, visions of youth.


“The Voyage of Life: Manhood ” by Thomas Cole circa 1842. National Gallery of Art.
Detail of Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life: Manhood.

“The Voyage of Life: Manhood” is a very dramatic shift in tone and content from “Youth.” The now middle-aged voyager finds himself in a dark and dreary landscape rushing down a treacherous part of the river. Rocks jut out of rapids that are mere seconds ahead of him. Looking forlorn, the helm of the boat is gone and his hands are clasped together in desperate prayer. The angels on the boat look concerned as time in the hourglass seems to be running out. Cole, who himself had bouts of melancholy, seems to be outlining his sobering and blunt view of middle age. In his words, “Trouble is characteristic of the period of manhood.” Above the voyager in the clouds are ghostly apparitions. The man seems haunted by “demons’ and the place to which he has been delivered by the ignorance of his youth.

The viewer is left with a feeling of uncertainty as to what will happen to the voyager. Out of the bewildered man’s sight, behind him in the clouds, light shines down into the unpleasant scene from where the angel continues to watch over him. This offers the insight that life’s difficulties may not be as serious or lasting as they may seem during the experience. Adulthood is a challenging part of the voyager’s journey that he is navigating with his faith. Even when all seems lost, it is not, and a higher power is watching over him. The flowers and superficial beauty of youth are behind him but what lies ahead is a more meaningful truth.

“The upward and imploring look of the voyager shows his dependence on a Superior Power; and that faith saves him from the destruction that seems inevitable.” – Thomas Cole

‘Old Age’

“The Voyage of Life: Old Age” by Thomas Cole circa 1842. National Gallery of Art.
Detail of Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life: Old Age.

In “The Voyage of Life: Old Age,” the river has reached the mouth of a calm ocean symbolizing the end of the voyager’s experience in this world. The boat’s hourglass has broken off and there isn’t much left in the landscape. The angel appears before him now, pointing his gaze toward the heavens, which appear to be opening up to him in a gesture of invitation beyond this world.

“The chains of corporeal existence are falling away; and already the mind has glimpses of Immortal Life,” described Cole. It is here that the Christian doctrine of salvation in the afterlife is most prominent allegorically. The voyager had his time on the wildly changing river of life and now looks in hopeful wonder toward the faith-based promise to which Cole and his patron subscribed.

“The Voyage of Life” was well received by the public and critics alike. The poet William Cullen Bryant remarked that “the conception of the series is a perfect poem … set before us are the different stages of human life under images which every beholder admits the beauty and deep significance.” The paintings form a powerful allegory for human life and the hope of salvation in the mystery beyond it. Cole was hugely influential in establishing America’s artistic reputation and his works went on to inspire many other American artists. His attempt to instill the divine into his landscapes played an important part in forming the beauty, soul, and allure of America.

In 1842, after the initial success of the series, Cole made the impressive and somewhat shocking decision to laboriously paint all four paintings a second time in order to be able to further display them publicly. The first series was privately owned by Ward’s family and thus no longer under his control. For this reason, two slightly different yet essentially similar sets of “The Voyage of Life” exist at two different American galleries. The first set (1839–40) is at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, and the second set (1842 and pictured in this article) is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Jeff Perkin is a graphic artist and an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach available at