Study for The Cross and the World—The Pilgrim of the World on his Journey

Thomas Cole (1801-1848)
Date: 1846-1847
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 12 H x 18 W

Signed, lower left: T Cole

Provenance: Possession of the artist; shown at the Memorial Exhibition of the Late Thomas Cole (1848); purchased by Cole's sister, Sarah Cole, in 1848; Receipt from Erastus Dow Palmer to AGFA for transport of Coles's paintings from The Cross and the World series from Catskill, NY, to Albany, dated 1/25/1850; in the possession of Mrs. Samuel P. Avery; in the possession of J. N. Bartfield in 1943; purchased by Albany Institute of History & Art in 1943
Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase
Accession Number: 1943.82

This sketch was a study for an ambitious five-part work, The Cross and the World, left unfinished when Cole died in 1848. In the series, his goal was to follow the paths of two people on opposing journeys. The "pilgrim of the cross" searches for spiritual truth and eternal salvation; the "pilgrim of the world" seeks pleasures in the material world. Starting with a central canvas showing both pilgrims setting out on their respective paths in life, Cole followed the fate of each on two separate canvases flanking the central scene. The use of light (for the virtuous) and dark (for the worldly pilgrim) reflects their differing fates at life's end. In this study, we see the pilgrim of the world entering a verdant, light-filled landscape where all life's temptations are laid before him—pleasures of the flesh, the lure of easy money, the seductions of power and fame. Although nearly hidden, the cross in the upper left corner symbolizes the path not taken by the worldly pilgrim. In the series' final painting, the pilgrim of the world comes to a barren landscape of ruined temples and moldering gardens, while death hovers above, ready to claim him forever.