While the young American Republic looked to ancient Greece and Rome for models and inspiration, much of the popular imagery regarding life and spirituality was based on European pictorial conventions that had persisted since the Middle Ages. The wood engraving representing The Life and Age of Man: Stages of Man’s Life, From the Cradle to the Grave, printed at Barre, Massachusetts, about 1820, exemplifies this.  Symbolic pictorial forms combine with text in a graphic lesson “Wherein all may behold their Frail Nature and the Miseries that attend a Sinful Life.”  The arch of steps references the Wheel of Fortune, rise and fall, the endless cycle of life.  Each figure, representing a decade, stands on a platform above an animal appropriate to that stage of life. Much of this masculine allegory focuses on gaining and maintaining strength, courage, and aggressiveness. The pivotal figure of the man wearing the top hat represents the decade in which strength fails and man becomes reliant on wiliness and/or wisdom.  The scene within the arch represents the life-choice to be made.  The happy man follows Wisdom, personified as a veiled woman holding a pearl; whereas the doomed man sits down for a drink at the Devil’s table, caught in the toils of the serpent-like mermaid on the ground beside him. A poem, with a verse for each letter of the alphabet, gives instruction on living the upright life. The didactic nature of The Life and Age of Man is typical of popular prints intended for moral instruction, and it shares many similarities with illustrations in eighteenth-century primers and other books intended for children.

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