An Attempt to Fulfill the Unfinished Design of WASHINGTON ALLSTON by THOMAS SPEAR.
Every one knows the history of this picture—how it was projected by the artist, and while yet only a mental sketch, was bought and sold by anticipation—how the weight of obligation thus incurred, probably even more than the obstacles and difficulties that beset his course, hindered it from completion—how it lay boxed up for years, and how, when at last having erected near his house a suitable painting room, he was again with animation engaged upon it, Death came, one night, to snatch the pencil from his hand.
To those who venerated in him the noblest artist, the purest representative of the realm of beauty who has ever enlightened our country, the unfinished picture, whose history was so interwoven with that of his more shadowy days, to whose completion he looked as a more full expression of his inward life than he had elsewhere been able to give, which bore the last touches of his hand, and the reflections of the last sun that shone upon his earthly career, was hallowed as if upon an altar. In life Mr. Allston was a consecrated object to all who approached him. It was not merely the dignity and singleness of his devotion to art, in youth and age the same, so that with him, at least, the artist-life, unsullied by vanity, base irritations, or any alloy of mercenary motives, had no vulgar side, nor the purity of his life, the elegance and silvery lustre of his manners and conversation, which at the moment turned the meanest, poorest nooks into the Italy of Italy, and gave to the poor little parlor the dignity of a Grecian temple. It was with him no one or two noble qualities or attractions, but an unity, an integrity of spirit and nature, that pervaded his works, his aspect, his manners, with one expression of dignity, loveliness, and holy tenderness, and shed through every thing he looked, or said, or did, gleams of that pure beauty for which our souls yearn and thirst so often and so much in vain.
Feeling thus as we looked on this unfinished picture there mingled with regret that it should be unfinished a delight and awe at being admitted, as it were, to the secret stages of growth and development in the mind whose completed works had done so very much for us. And we never felt a more intimate approximation to the secret of genius than through imagination and sympathy, through a spiritual sense of him who is not dead but sleeping, was given in the silence and loneliness of the room in which we were admitted to contemplation of the unfinished picture.
No one dreamed of any other hand being competent to finish out this work. It is true the greatest masters have often employed their pupils to paint a large portion of their pictures. But they did employ their pupils who had become intimately acquainted with their methods of composition and coloring, and on subordinate parts of the work, reserving to themselves what was needed to give harmony and full effect to the design.
Mr. Allston had no pupil; nor did any person approach him as to coloring or finish. Beside, his design wad left unfinished and confused.
Under these circumstances the request of Mr. Spear (we speak from common report, not from immediate late intelligence with the friends of Mr. Allston and owners of the picture) that he might be permitted to copy what was already existent on the canvass and carry out the design as he conceived it, was naturally refused. The case was peculiar, but of course did not stand on the footing of permission to copy a completed picture. There was danger of tampering with the fame of Mr. Allston, and substituting to the public a caricature for the ideal presences before his mind.
Mr. Spear, then, having no open access to copy the picture, was in the habit of drawing from it privately on his hat, till he had all the parts before him in little. He carried with him the composition as a whole in his mind’s eye, and has studied out the subject for himself, and painted it according to his idea of the intentions of the painter.
If this report of the case be correct, it would seem that most persons would feel it contrary to their sense of honor thus to usurp an inheritance to which the great painter had not elected them, and run the risk of substituting their ideas for his, on ground which he had thus enclosed and set apart.—The case, as we said before, is unique, and we find not rules or precedents. It is not a parallel with the attempt to finish Coleridge’s Christabel, for instance; a late folly of a very good sort of a man, because in that instance the new does not mix with or disfigure the old. But, taking it as a new case, we must say, it is a thing we would not have done for worlds, at least with any view to public exhibition. It is a thing, of course, which any artist would have a right to do, as a study for himself alone. But if Mr. Spear’s motives were purely or chiefly mercenary, we deem the act unpardonable. We think, at any rate, he should never advertise the picture as Allston’s Belshazzar’s Feast. He ought to acquaint the public that it is not Allston’s, but only his own view of what Allston intended. And he ought to let us know by what right he justifies to himself this act. Was he haunted by a feeling that he could really being out the ideas of the great painted with due force? Did he want delicacy to perceive the objections to such an enterprise? Or was it with him simply and coarsely a means of getting reputation and money, without respect to those rules of conduct which need the more carefully to be studied that they belong to a region so refined that they cannot be exactly marked in codes or enforced by courts of law?
Suppose, however, that Mr. Spear has reasons that justify his proceedings, and that the facts as to the production of the picture now on exhibition here be every where made known, we are, for ourselves, much pleased to see it. The degree of success is such as to justify the attempt.—The conception of the artist shines out very visibly, if not with the effulgence his own hand would have bestowed. The canvas is rich in motion, concentrated thought and “the fullness of forms.” We do not describe it, because people can see it for themselves, and a work of art is always its own best interpreter. To those who are disappointed in the prophet, we must say that the work of Allston did not promise much more. That central form is no Prophet: no heir of Moses worthy to be marshaled by the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, so elect of God whose eye of majestic faith could tame the lions in their den, but in all save the beard not more powerful in expression than the elders and ministers of our modern synods. The force of the design is in the astonished figures of the voluptuous and reckless court, with its unworthy royalties, its idol shining with a light that this moment casts into the Past its scoffing figures of the priests and soothsayers, whose faces the monstrous developments of pride, vice and hypocrisy have exaggerated into masks, that mark us for the odious possibilities of human nature. Yet even in the odiousness is the grandeur, the superior luxuriance of ancient oriental growth. The poem of the epoch is brought nobly before us in this picture. The details of execution we leave to the artists to criticize. We must not forget to observe how finely the contrast of lights and the furniture of the scene are imagined, nor the grace that the beautiful and highly dressed female form on the left lends to the terror. Mr. Allston had the finest understanding of the effects of different tissues in dress, the arrangement of hair and jewels. The poetry of social life, all those fine garden flowers which these things express, stood at his command.
This picture, Allston à la Spear, is in the Granite building, corner of Chambers-street and Broadway.*
“Belshazzar’s Feast,” New-York Daily Tribune, 12 June 1846, p. 1.