There are persons to whom a gallery is everywhere a home. In this country, the antique is known only by plaster casts, and by drawings. The BOSTON ATHENÆUM,—on whose sunny roof and beautiful chambers may the benediction of centuries of students rest with mine!—added to its library, in 1823, a small, but excellent museum of the antique sculpture, in plaster;—the selection being dictated, it is said, by no less an adviser than Canova. The Apollo, the Laocoon, the Venuses, Diana, the head of the Phidian Jove, Bacchus, Antinous, the Torso Hercules, the Discobolus, the Gladiator Borghese, the Apollino,—all these, and more, the sumptuous gift of Augustus Thorndike. It is much that one man should have power to confer on so many, who never saw him, a benefit so pure and enduring.
To these were soon added a heroic line of antique busts, and, at last, by Horatio Greenough, the Night and Day of Michel Angelo. Here was old Greece and old Italy brought bodily to New England, and a verification given to all our dreams and readings. It was easy to collect, from the drawing-rooms of the city, a respectable picture-gallery for a summer exhibition. This was also done, and a new pleasure was invented for the studious, and a new home for the solitary. The Brimmer donation, in 1838, added a costly series of engravings, chiefly of the French and Italian museums, and the drawings of Guercino, Salvator Rosa, and other masters. The separate chamber in which these collections were at first contained, made a favorite place of meeting for Margaret and a few of her friends, who were lovers of these works.
First led perhaps by Goethe, afterwards by the love she herself conceived for them, she read everything that related to Michel Angelo and Raphael. She read, pen in hand, Quatremere de Quincy’s lives of those two painters, and I have her transcripts and commentary before me. She read Condivi, Vasari, Benvenuto Cellini, Duppa, Fuseli, and Von Waagen,—great and small. Every design of Michel, the four volumes of Raphael’s designs, were in the rich portfolios of her most intimate friend. ‘I have been very happy,’ she writes, ‘with ‘four hundred and seventy designs of Raphael in my ‘possession for a week.’
These fine entertainments were shared with many admirers, and, as I now remember them, certain months about the years 1839, 1840, seem colored with the genius of these Italians. Our walls were hung with prints of the Sistine frescoes; we were all petty collectors; and prints of Correggio and Gaercino took the place, for the time, of epics and philosophy.
In the summer of 1839, Boston was still more rightfully adorned with the Allston Gallery; and the sculptures of our compatriots Greenough, and Crawford, and Powers, were brought hither. The following lines were addressed by Margaret to the Orpheus:—
Each Orpheus must to the abyss descend,
For only thus the poet can be wise,—
Must make the sad Persephone his friend,
And buried Jove to second life arise;
Again his love must love, through too much love,
Must lose his life by living life too true;
For what he sought below has passed above,
Already done is all that he would do;
Must tune all being with his single lyre;
Must melt all rocks free from their primal pain;
Must search all nature with his one soul’s fire;
Must bind anew all forms in heavenly chain:
If he already sees what he must do,
Well may he shade his eyes from the far-shining view.
Margaret’s love of art, like that of most cultivated persons in this country, was not at all technical, but truly a sympathy with the artist, in the protest which his work pronounced on the deformity of our daily manners; her co-perception with him of the eloquence of form; her aspiration with him to a fairer life. As soon as her conversation ran into the mysteries of manipulation and artistic effect, it was less trustworthy. I remember that in the first times when I chanced to see pictures with her, I listened reverently to her opinions, and endeavored to see what she saw. But, on several occasions, finding myself unable to reach it, I came to suspect my guide, and to believe, at last, that her taste in works of art, though honest, was not on universal, but on idiosyncratic, grounds. As it has proved one of the most difficult problems of the practical astronomer to obtain an achromatic telescope, so an achromatic eye, one of the most needed, is also one of the rarest instruments of criticism.
She was very susceptible to pleasurable stimulus, took delight in details of form, color, and sound. Her fancy and imagination were easily stimulated to genial activity, and she erroneously thanked the artist for the pleasing emotions and thoughts that rose in her mind. So that, though capable of it, she did not always bring that highest tribunal to a work of art, namely, the calm presence of greatness, which only greatness in the object can satisfy. Yet the opinion was often well worth hearing on its own account, though it might be wide of the mark as criticism. Sometimes, too, she certainly brought to beautiful objects a fresh and appreciating love; and her written notes, especially on sculpture, I found always original and interesting. Here are some notes on the Athenæum Gallery of Sculpture, in August, 1840, which she sent me in manuscript:—
Here are many objects worth study. There is Thorwaldsen’s Byron. This is the truly beautiful, the ideal Byron. This head is quite free from the got-up, caricatured air of disdain, which disfigures most likenesses of him, as it did himself in real life; yet sultry, stern, all-craving, all-commanding. Even the heavy style of the hair, too closely curled for grace, is favorable to the expression of concentrated life. While looking at this head, you learn to account for the grand failure in the scheme of his existence. The line of the cheek and chin are here, as usual, of unrivalled beauty.
The bust of Napoleon is here also, and will naturally be named, in connection with that of Byron, since the one in letters, the other in arms, represented more fully than any other the tendency of their time; more than any other gave it a chance for reaction. There was another point of resemblance in the external being of the two, perfectly corresponding with that of the internal, a sense of which peculiarity drew on Byron some ridicule. I mean that it was the intention of nature, that neither should ever grow fat, but remain a Cassius in the commonwealth. And both these heads are taken while they were at an early age, and so thin as to be still beautiful. This head of Napoleon is of a stern beauty. A head must be of a style either very stern or very chaste, to make a deep impression on the beholder; there must be a great force of will and withholding of resources, giving a sense of depth below depth, which we call sternness; or else there must be that purity, flowing as from an inexhaustible fountain through every lineament, which drives far off or converts all baser natures. Napoleon’s head is of the first description; it is stern, and not only so, but ruthless. Yet this ruthlessness excites no aversion; the artist has caught its true character, and given us here the Attila, the instrument of fate to serve a purpose not his own. While looking on it, came full to mind the well-known lines,—
Who knows, Scourge of God, but in His eyes, those crimes
His brows are tense and damp with the dews of thought. In that head you see the great future, careless of the black and white stones; and even when you turn to the voluptuous beauty of the mouth, the impression remains so strong, that Russia’s snows, and mountains of the slain, seem the tragedy that must naturally follow the appearance of such an actor. You turn from him, feeling that he is a product not of the day, but of the ages, and that the ages must judge him.
Near him is a head of Ennius, very intellectual; self-centred and self-fed; but wrung and gnawed by unceasing thoughts.
Yet, even near the Ennius and Napoleon, our American men look worthy to be perpetuated in marble or bronze, if it were only for their air of calm, unpretending sagacity. If the young American were to walk up an avenue lined with such effigies, he might not feel called to such greatness as the strong Roman wrinkles tell of, but he must feel that he could not live an idle life, and should nerve himself to lift an Atlas weight without repining or shrinking.
The busts of Everett and Allston, though admirable as every-day likenesses, deserved a genius of a different order from Clevenger. Clevenger gives the man as he is at the moment, but does not show the possibilities of his existence. Even thus seen, the head of Mr. Everett brings back all the age of Pericles, so refined and classic is its beauty. The two busts of Mr. Webster, by Clevenger and Powers, are the difference between prose,—healthy and energetic prose, indeed, but still prose,—and poetry. Clevenger’s is such as we see Mr. Webster on any public occasion, when his genius is not called forth. No child could fail to recognize it in a moment. Powers’ is not so good as a likeness, but has the higher merit of being an ideal of the orator and statesman at a great moment. It is quite an American Jupiter in its eagle calmness of conscious power.
A marble copy of the beautiful Diana, not so spirited as the Athenæum cast. S. C– thought the difference was one of size. This work may be seen at a glance; yet does not tire one after survey. It has the freshness of the woods, and of morning dew. I admire those long lithe limbs, and that column of a throat. The Diana is a woman’s ideal of beauty; its elegance, its spirit, its graceful, peremptory air, are what we like in our own sex: the Venus is for men. The sleeping Cleopatra cannot be looked at enough; always her sleep seems sweeter and more graceful, always more wonderful the drapery. A little Psyche, by a pupil of Bartolini, pleases us much thus far. The forlorn sweetness with which she sits there, crouched down like a bruised butterfly, and the languid tenacity of her mood, are very touching. The Mercury and Ganymede with the Eagle, by Thorwaldsen, are still as fine as on first acquaintance. Thorwaldsen seems the grandest and simplest of modern sculptors. There is a breadth in his thought, a freedom in his design, we do not see elsewhere.
A spaniel, by Gott, shows great talent, and knowledge of the animal. The head is admirable; it is so full of playfulness and of doggish knowingness.
I am tempted, by my recollection of the pleasure it gave her, to insert here a little poem, addressed to Margaret by one of her friends, on the beautiful imaginative picture in the gallery of 1840, called “The Dream.”
Dreams in a place so silent, that no bird,
No rustle of the leaves his slumbers break;
Only soft tinkling from the stream is heard,
As in bright little waves it comes to greet
The beauteous One, and play upon his feet.
“On a low bank, beneath the thick shade thrown,
Soft gleams over his brown hair are flitting,
His golden plumes, bending, all lovely shone;
It seemed an angel’s home where he was sitting 1
Erect, beside, a silver lily grew,
And over all the shadow its sweet beauty threw.
“Dreams he of life? O, then a noble maid
Toward him floats, with eyes of starry light,
In richest robes all radiantly arrayed,
To be his ladye and his dear delight.
Ah no! the distance shows a winding stream;
No lovely ladye moves, no starry eyes do gleam.
“Cold is the air, and cold the mountains blue;
The banks are brown, and men are lying there,
Meagre and old; O, what have they to do
With joyous visions of a youth so fair?
He must not ever sleep as they are sleeping,
Onward through life he must be ever sweeping.
“Let the pale glimmering distance pass away;
Why in the twilight art thou slumbering there?
Wake, and come forth into triumphant day;
Thy life and deeds must all be great and fair.
Canst thou not from the lily learn true glory,
Pure, lofty, lowly?—such should he thy story.
“But no! thou lovest the deep-eyéd Past,
And thy heart clings to sweet remembrances;
In dim cathedral aisles thou ‘lt linger last,
And fill thy mind with flitting fantasies.
But know, dear One, the world is rich to-day,
And the unceasing God gives glory forth alway.”
I have said she was never weary of studying Michel Angelo and Raphael; and here are some manuscript “notes,” which she sent me one day, containing a clear expression of her feeling toward each of these masters, after she had become tolerably familiar with their designs, as far as prints could carry her:—
On seeing such works as these of Michel Angelo, we feel the need of a genius scarcely inferior to his own, which should invent some word, or some music, adequate to express our feelings, and relieve us from the Titanic oppression.
“Greatness,” “majesty,” “strength,”—to these words we had before thought we attached their proper meaning. But now we repent that they ever passed our lips. Created anew by the genius of this man, we would create language anew, and give him a word of response worthy his sublime profession of faith. Could we not at least have reserved “godlike” for him? For never till now did we appreciate the primeval vigor of creation, the instant swiftness with which thought can pass to deed; never till now appreciate the passage, “Let there be light, and there was light,” which, be grateful, Michel! was clothed in human word before thee.
One feels so repelled and humbled, on turning from Raphael to his contemporary, that I could have hated him as a Gentile Choragus might hate the prophet Samuel. Raphael took us to his very bosom, as if we had been fit for disciples,—
And telling me none ever was preferred.”
This man waves his serpent wand over me, and beauty’s self seems no better than a golden calf!
I could not bear M. DeQuincy for intimating that the archangel Michel could be jealous; yet I can easily see that he might have given cause, by undervaluing his divine contemporary. Raphael was so sensuous, so lovely and loving. All undulates to meet the eye, glides or floats upon the soul’s horizon, as soft as is consistent with perfectly distinct and filled-out forms. The graceful Lionardo might see his pictures in moss; the beautiful Raphael on the cloud, or wave, or foliage; but thou, Michel, didst look straight upwards to the heaven, and grasp and bring thine down from the very sun of invention.
How Raphael revels in the image! His life is alt reproduced; nothing was abstract or conscious. Pantheism, Polytheism, Greek god of Beauty, Apollo Musagetes,—what need of life beyond the divine work? “I paint,” said he, “from an idea that comes into my mind.”
But thou, Michel, didst not only feel but see the divine Ideal. Thine is the conscious monotheism of Jewry. Like thy own Moses, even on the mount of celestial converse, thou didst ask thy God to show now his face, and didst write his words, not in the alphabet of flowers, but on stone tables.
It is, indeed, the two geniuses of Greece and Jewry, which are reproduced in these two men. Thanmaturgus nature saw fit to wait but a very few years before using these moulds again, in smaller space. Would you read the Bible aright? look at Michel; the Greek Mythology? look at Raphael. Would you know how the sublime coexists with the beautiful, or the beautiful with the sublime? would you see power and truth regnant on the one side, with beauty and love harmonious and ministrant, but subordinate; or would you look at the other aspect of Deity?—study here. Would you open all the founts of marvel, admiration, and tenderness?—study both.
One is not higher than the other; yet I am conscious of a slight rebuke from Michel, for having so poured out my soul at the feet of his brother angel. He seems to remind of Mr. E.’s view, and ask, “Why did you not question whether there was not aught else? why not reserve some inaccessible stronghold for me? why did you unlock the floodgates of the mind to such tides of emotion?” But there is no reality or permanence in this; it is only a reminder that the feminine part of human nature must not be dominant.
The prophets of Michel Angelo excite all my admiration at the man capable of giving to such a physique an expression which commands it. The soul is worthily lodged in these powerful frames; and she has the ease and dignity of one accustomed to command, and to command servants able to obey her hests. Who else could have so animated such forms, that they are imposing, but never heavy? The strong man is made so majestic by his office, that you scarcely feel how strong he is. The wide folds of the drapery, the breadth of light and shade, are great as anything in
How they read,—these prophets and sibyls! Never did the always-baffled, always reäspiring hope of the finite to compass the infinite find such expression, except in the sehnsucht of music. They are buried in the volume. They cannot believe that it has not somewhere been revealed, the word of enigma, the link between the human and divine, matter and spirit. Evidently, they hope to find it on the very next page. I have always thought, that clearly enough did nature and the soul’s own consciousness respond to the craving for immortality. I have thought it great weakness to need the voucher of a miracle, or of any of those direct interpositions of a divine power, which, in common parlance, are alone styled revelation. When the revelations of nature seemed to me so clear, I had thought it was the weakness of the heart, or the dogmatism of the understanding, which had such need of a book. But in these figures of Michel, the highest power seizes upon a scroll, hoping that some other mind may have dived to the depths of eternity for the desired pearl, and enable him, without delay, consciously to embrace the Everlasting Now.
How fine the attendant intelligences! So youthful and fresh, yet so strong. Some merely docile and reverent, others eager for utterance before the thought be known,—so firm.is the trust in its value, so great the desire for sympathy. Others so brilliant in the attention of the inquiring eye, so intelligent in every feature, that they seem to divine the whole, before they hear it.
Zachariah is much the finer of the two prophets.
Of the sibyls, the Cumæa would be disgusting, from her overpowering strength in the feminine form, if genius had not made her tremendous. Especially the bosom gives me a feeling of faintness and aversion I cannot express. The female breast looks made for the temple of sweet and chaste thoughts, while this is so formed as to remind you of the lioness in her lair, and suggest a word which I will not write.
The Delphica is even beautiful, in Michel’s fair, calm, noble style, like the mother and child asleep in the Persica, and Night in the casts I have just seen.
The Libica is also more beautiful than grand. Her adjuncts are admirable. The elder figure, in the lowest pannel,—with what eyes of deep experience, and still unquenched enthusiasm, he sits meditating on the past! The figures at top are fiery with genius, especially the melancholy one, worthy to lift any weight, if he did but know how to set about it. As it is, all his strength may be wasted, yet he no whit the less noble.
But the Persica is my favorite above all. She is the true sibyl. All the grandeur of that wasted frame comes from within. The life of thought has wasted the fresh juices of the body, and hardened the sere leaf of her cheek to parchment; every lineament is sharp, every tint tarnished; her face is seamed with wrinkles,—usually as repulsive on a woman’s face as attractive on a man. We usually feel, on looking at a woman, as if Nature had given them their best dower, and Experience could prove little better than a step-dame. But here, her high ambition and devotion to the life of thought gives her the masculine privilege of beauty in advancing years. Read on, hermitess of the world! what thou seekest is not there, yet thou dost not seek in vain.
The adjuncts to this figure are worthy of it. On the right, below, those two divine sleepers, redeeming human nature, and infolding expectation in a robe of pearly sheen. Here is the sweetness of strength,—honey to the valiant; on the other side, its awfulness,—meat to the strong man. His sleep is more powerful than the waking of myriads of other men. What will he do when he has recruited his strength in this night’s slumber? What wilt thou sing of it, wild-haired child of the lyre?
I admire the heavy fall of the sleeper’s luxuriant hair, which reminds one of the final shutting down of night upon a sullen twilight.
The other figures, too, are full of augury, sad but life-like, in its poetry. On the shield, how perfectly is the expression of being struck home to the heart given! I wish I could have that shield, in some shape. Only a single blow was needed; the hand was sure, the breast shrinking, but unresisting. Die, child of my affection, child of my old age! Let the blood follow to the hilt, for it is the sword of the Lord!
In looking again, this shield is on the Libica, and that of the Persica represents conquest, not sacrifice.
Over all these figures broods the spirit of prophecy. You see their sternest deed is under the theocratic form. There is pride in action, but no selfism in these figures.
When I first came to Michel, I clung to the beautiful Raphael, and feared his Druidical axe. But now, after the sibyls of Michel, it is unsafe to look at those of Raphael; for they seem weak, which is not so, only seems so, beside the sterner ideal.
The beauty of composition here is great, and you feel that Michel’s works are looked at fragment-wise in comparison. Here the eye glides along so naturally, does so easily justice to each part.’
All Sub-Works of Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1874).:
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.