Going back to ancient times is a pictorial genre depicting the course of human life — an illustration of a man’s progress from start to end plotted onto the length and depth of a two-dimensional plane. By convention, the beginning point is in the foreground; the end is in the distance. Such images are a single-sheet form of the “picture story,” a means of expression developed so well by Hogarth (“Rake’s Progress”) or Daumier. As Hogarth said “I treat my subjects as a dramatic writer; my picture is my stage, and men and women my players.”
One of the earliest examples of this genre is the “Tablet of Cebes,” a mural said to be in the temple of Chronos in either Athens or Thebes. It showed one’s progress from entry at the gate of Genius to the goal of reaching Happiness in the end. Here is an image from a 1694 work showing the path.
[H. L. Spieghel, Hertspieghel en andere zede-schriften (Amsterdam, 1694), folding plate following page 72.]
[Note: Detail about the picture can be found on page 8 -11 of Richard Parsons, Cebes’ Tablet (Boston, 1901) available in Google Book Search. Much more on the topic is available from Reinhart Schleier,
Tabula Cebetis; oder, “Spiegel des Menschlichen Lebens darin Tugent und untugent abgemalet ist” : Studien zur Rezeption einer antiken Bildbeschreibung im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert. Berlin, Gebr. Mann Verlag (c1973).]
Equally forceful is the depiction of the course of life in reverse — in the case of this temperance broadside, cast as a railway route from “Sippington” to “Destruction” with 30 stops in between.
[Black Valley Railroad, Great Central Fast Route, colored wood engraving issued by the National Temperance Society, New York and Boston.(1880?) Ex Item 5184327q]
Up until about 1900, a moral dialogue about the Tablet was widely used as a school text for the teaching of elementary Greek, so it is not surprising that the learned advocates of temperance in the United States adapted the genre for popular, moral instruction.