By Margaret Fuller
This is a record of impressions. It does not aspire to the dignity of criticism. The writer is conscious of an eye and taste, not sufficiently exercised by study of the best works of art, to take the measure of one who has a claim to be surveyed from the same platform. But, surprised at finding that an exhibition, intended to promote thought and form the tastes of our public, has called forth no expression of what it was to so many, who almost daily visited it; and believing that comparison and discussion of the impressions of individuals is the best means to ascertain the sum of the whole, and raise the standard of taste, I venture to offer what, if not true in itself, is at least true to the mind of one observer, and may lead others to reveal more valuable experiences.
Whether the arts can ever be at home among us; whether the desire now manifested to cultivate them be not merely one of our modes of imitating older nations; or whether it springs from a need of balancing the bustle and care of daily life by the unfolding of our calmer and higher nature, it is at present difficult to decide. If the latter, it is not by unthinking repetition of the technics of foreign connoisseurs, or by a servile reliance on the judgment of those, who assume to have been formed by a few hasty visits to the galleries of Europe, that we shall effect an object so desirable, but by a faithful recognition of the feelings naturally excited by works of art, not indeed flippant, as if our raw, uncultivated nature was at once competent to appreciate those finer manifestations of nature, which slow growths of ages and peculiar aspects of society have occasionally brought out, to testify to us what we may and should be. We know it is not so; we know that if such works are to be assimilated at all by those who are not under the influences that produced them, it must be by gradually educating us to their own level. But it is not blind faith that will educate us, that will open the depths and clear the eye of the mind, but an examination which cannot be too close, if made in the spirit of reverence and love.
It was an essay in this kind that the following pages were written. They are pages of a journal, and their form has not been altered, lest any attempt at a more fair and full statement should destroy that freshness and truth of feeling, which is the chief merit of such.
On the closing of the Allston exhibition, where I have spent so many hours, I find myself less a gainer than I had expected, and feel that it is time to look into the matter a little, with such a torch or penny rush candle as I can command.
I have seen most of these pictures often before the Beatrice and Valentine when only sixteen. The effect they produced upon me was so great, that I suppose it was not possible for me to avoid expecting too large a benefit from the artist.
The calm and meditative cast of these pictures the ideal beauty that shone through rather than in them: and the harmony of coloring were as unlike anything else I saw as the Vicar of Wakefield to Cooper’s novels. I seemed to recognise in painting that self-possessed elegance, that transparent depth, which I most admired in literature ; I thought with delight that such a man as this had been able to grow up in our bustling, reasonable community that he had kept his foot upon the ground, yet never lost sight of the rose-clouds of beauty floating above him. I saw, too, that he had not been troubled, but possessed his own soul with the blandest patience; and I hoped, I scarce know what, probably the mot d’enigme for which we are all looking. How the poetical mind can live and work in peace and good faith! How it may unfold to its due perfection in an unpoetical society!
From time to time I have seen other of these pictures, and they have always been to me sweet silvery music, rising by its clear tone to be heard above the din of life; long forest glades glimmering with golden light, longingly eyed from the window of some crowded drawing room.
But now, seeing so many of them together, I can no longer be content merely to feel, but must judge these works. I must try to find the centre, to measure the circumference; and I fare somewhat as I have done, when I have seen in periodicals detached thoughts by some writer, which seemed so full of meaning and suggestion, that I would treasure them up in my memory, and think about them, till I had made a picture of the author’s mind, which his works when I found them collected would not justify. Yet the great writer would go beyond my hope and abash my fancy; should not the great painter do the same?
Yet, probably, I am too little aware of the difficulties the artist encounters, before he can produce anything excellent, fully to appreciate the greatness he has shown. Here, as elsewhere, I suppose the first question should be, What ought we to expect under the circumstances?
There is no poetical ground-work ready for the artist in our country and time. Good deeds appeal to the understanding. Our religion is that of the understanding. We have no old established faith, no hereditary romance, no such stuff as Catholicism, Chivalry afforded. What is most dignified in the Puritanic modes of thought is not favorable to beauty. The habits of an industrial community are not propitious to delicacy of sentiment.
He, who would paint human nature, must content himself with selecting fine situations here and there; and he must address himself, not to a public which is not educated to prize him, but to the small circle within the circle of men of taste.
If, like Wilkie or Newton, he paints direct from nature, only selecting and condensing, or choosing lights and draperies, I suppose he is as well situated now as he could ever have been; but if, like Mr. Allston, he aims at the Ideal, it is by no means the same. He is in danger of being sentimental and picturesque, rather than spiritual and noble. Mr. Allston has not fallen into these faults; and if we can complain, it is never of blemish or falsity, but of inadequacy. Always he has a high purpose in what he does, never swerves from his aim, but sometimes fails to reach it.
The Bible, familiar to the artist’s youth, has naturally furnished subjects for his most earnest effort. I will speak but of four pictures on biblical subjects, which were in this exhibition.
Restoring the dead man by the touch of the Prophet’s Bones. I should say there was a want of artist’s judgment in the very choice of the subject.
In all the miracles where Christ and the Apostles act a part, and which have been favorite subjects with the great painters, poetical beauty is at once given to the scene by the moral dignity, the sublime exertion of faith on divine power in the person of the main actor. He is the natural centre of the picture, and the emotions of all present grade from and cluster round him. So in a martyrdom, however revolting or oppressive the circumstances, there is room in the person of the sufferer for a similar expression, a central light which shall illuminate and dignify all round it.
But a miracle effected by means of a relique, or dry bones, has the disagreeable effect of mummery. In this picture the foreground is occupied by the body of the patient in that state of deadly rigidity and pallor so offensive to the sensual eye. The mind must reason the eye out of an instinctive aversion, and force it to its work, —always an undesirable circumstance.
In such a picture as that of the Massacre of the Innocents, painful as the subject is, the beauty of forms in childhood, and the sentiment of maternal love, so beautiful even in anguish, charm so much as to counterpoise the painful emotions. But here, not only is the main figure offensive to the sensual eye, thus violating one principal condition of art; it is incapable of any expression at such a time beyond that of physical anguish during the struggle of life suddenly found to re-demand its dominion. Neither can the assistants exhibit any emotions higher than those of surprise, terror, or, as in the case of the wife, an over whelming anxiety of suspense.
The grouping and coloring of this picture are very good, and the individual figures managed with grace and discrimination, though without much force.
The subjects of the other three pictures are among the finest possible, grand no less than beautiful, and of the highest poetical interest. They present no impediment to the manifestation of genius. Let us look first at Jeremiah in prison dictating to Baruch.
The strength and dignity of the Jew physique, and the appropriateness of the dress, allowed fair play to the painter’s desire to portray inspiration manifesting itself by a suitable organ. As far as the accessories and grouping of the figures nothing can be better. The form of the prophet is brought out in such noble relief, is in such fine contrast to the pale and feminine sweetness of the scribe at his feet, that for a time you are satisfied. But by and by you begin to doubt, whether this picture is not rather imposing than majestic. The dignity of the prophet’s appearance seems to lie rather in the fine lines of the form and drapery, than in the expression of the face. It was well observed by one who looked on him, that, if the eyes were cast down, he would become an ordinary man. This is true, and the expression of the bard must not depend on a look or gesture, but beam with mild electricity from every feature. Allston’s Jeremiah is not the mournfully indignant bard, but the robust and stately Jew, angry that men will not mark his word and go his way. But Baruch is admirable! His overwhelmed yet willing submission, the docile faith which turns him pale, and trembles almost tearful in his eye, are given with infinite force and beauty. The coup d’ceil of this picture is excellent, and it has great merit, but not the highest.
Miriam. There is hardly a subject which, for the combination of the sublime with the beautiful, could present greater advantages than this. Yet this picture also, with all its great merits, fails to satisfy our highest requisitions.
I could wish the picture had been larger, and that the angry clouds and swelling sea did not need to be looked for as they do. For the whole attention remains so long fixed on the figure of Miriam, that you cannot for some time realize who she is. You merely see this bounding figure, and the accessories are so kept under, that it is difficult to have the situation full in your mind, and feel that you see not merely a Jewish girl dancing, but the representative of Jewry rescued and triumphant! What a figure this might be! The character of Jewish beauty is so noble and profound! This maiden had been nurtured in a fair and highly civilized country, in the midst of wrong and scorn indeed, but beneath the shadow of sublime institutions. In a state of abject bondage, in a catacomb as to this life, she had embalmed her soul in the memory of those days, when God walked with her fathers, and did for their sakes such mighty works. Amid all the pains and penances of slavery, the memory of Joseph, the presence of Moses, exalt her soul to the highest pitch of national pride. The chords had of late been strung to their greatest tension, by the series of prodigies wrought in behalf of the nation of which her family is now the head. Of these the last and grandest had just taken place before her eyes.
Imagine the stately and solemn beauty with which such nurture and such a position might invest the Jewish Miriam. Imagine her at the moment when her soul would burst at last the shackles in which it had learned to move freely and proudly, when her lips were unsealed, and she was permitted before her brother, deputy of the Most High, and chief of their assembled nation, to sing the song of deliverance.
Realize this situation, and oh, how far will this beautiful picture fall short of your demands!
The most unimaginative observers complain of a want of depth in the eye of Miriam. For myself, I make the same complaint, as much as I admire the whole figure. How truly is she upborne, what swelling joy and pride in every line of her form! And the face, though inadequate, is not false to the ideal. Its beauty is mournful, and only wants the heroic depth, the cavernous flame of eye, which should belong to such a face in such a place.
The witch of Endor is still more unsatisfactory. What a tragedy was that of the stately Saul, ruined by his perversity of will, despairing, half mad, refusing to give up the sceptre which he feels must in a short time be wrenched from his hands, degrading himself to the use of means he himself had forbid as unlawful and devilish, seeking the friend and teacher of his youth by means he would most of all men disapprove. The mournful significance of the crisis, the stately aspect of Saul as celebrated in the history, and the supernatural events which had filled his days, gave authority for investing him with that sort of
beauty and majesty proper to archangels ruined. What have we here? I don’t know what is generally thought about the introduction of a ghost on canvass, but it is to me as ludicrous as the introduction on the stage of the ghost in Hamlet (in his nightgown) as the old play book direction was. The effect of such a representation seems to me unattainable in a picture. There cannot be due distance and shadowy softness.
Then what does the picture mean to say? In the chronicle, the witch, surprised and affrighted at the apparition, reproaches the king, ” Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul.”
But here the witch (a really fine figure, fierce and pronouncé as that of a Norna should be) seems threatening the king, who is in an attitude of theatrical as well as degrading dismay. To me this picture has no distinct expression, and is wholly unsatisfactory, maugre all its excellences of detail.
In fine, the more I have looked at these pictures, the more I have been satisfied that the grand historical style did not afford the scope most proper to Mr. Allston’s genius. The Prophets and Sibyls are for the Michael Angelos. The Beautiful is Mr. Allston’s dominion. There he rules as a Genius, but in attempts such as I have been considering, can only show his appreciation of the stern and sublime thoughts he wants force to reproduce.
But on his own ground we can meet the painter with almost our first delight.
A certain bland delicacy enfolds all these creations as an atmosphere. Here is no effort, they have floated across the painter’s heaven on the golden clouds of phantasy.
These pictures (I speak here only of figures, of the landscapes a few words anon) are almost all in repose. The most beautiful are Beatrice, The Lady reading a Valentine, The Evening Hymn, Rosalie, The Italian Shepherd Boy, Edwin, Lorenzo and Jessica. The excellence of these pictures is subjective and even feminine. They tell us the painter’s ideal of character. A graceful repose, with a fitness for moderate action. A capacity of emotion, with a habit of reverie. Not one of these beings is in a state of epanchement, not one is, or perhaps could be, thrown off its equipoise. They are, even the softest, characterized by entire though unconscious self-possession.
While looking at them would be always coming tip in my mind the line,
“The genius loci, feminine and fair.”
Grace, grace always.
Mr. Allston seems to have an exquisite sensibility to color, and a great love for drapery. The last sometimes leads him to direct our attention too much to it, and sometimes the accessories are made too prominent; we look too much at shawls, curtains, rings, feathers, and carcanets.
I will specify two of these pictures, which seem to me to indicate Mr. Allston’s excellences as well as any.
The Italian shepherd boy is seated in a wood. The form is almost nude, and the green glimmer of the wood gives the flesh the polished whiteness of marble. He is very beautiful, this boy; and the beauty, as Mr. Allston loves it best, has not yet unfolded all its leaves. The heart of the flower is still a perfumed secret. He sits as if he could sit there forever, gracefully lost in reverie, steeped, if we may judge from his mellow brown eye, in the present loveliness of nature, in the dimly anticipated ecstasies of love.
Every part of nature has its peculiar influence. On the hill top one is roused, in the valley soothed, beside the waterfall absorbed. And in the wood, who has not, like this boy, walked as far as the excitement of exercise would carry him, and then, with “blood listening in his frame,’ and heart brightly awake, seated himself on such a bank. At first he notices everything, the clouds doubly soft, the sky deeper blue, as seen shimmering through the leaves, the fyttes of golden light seen through the long glades, the skimming of a butterfly ready to light on some starry wood-flower, the nimble squirrel peeping archly at him, the flutter and wild notes of the birds, the whispers and sighs of the trees, —
gradually he ceases to mark any of these things, and becomes lapt in the Elysian harmony they combine to form. Who has ever felt this mood understands why the observant Greek placed his departed great ones in groves. While during this trance he hears the harmonies of Nature, he seems to become her and she him; it is truly the mother in the child, and the Hamadryads look out with eyes of tender twilight approbation from their beloved and loving trees. Such an hour lives for us again in this picture.
Mr. Allston has been very fortunate in catching the shimmer and glimmer of the woods, and tempering his greens and browns to their peculiar light.
Beatrice. This is spoken of as Dante’s Beatrice, but I should think can scarcely have been suggested by the Divine Comedy. The painter merely having in mind how the great Dante loved a certain lady called Beatrice, embodied here his own ideal of a poet’s love.
The Beatrice of Dante was, no doubt, as pure, as gentle, as high-bred, but also possessed of much higher attributes than this fair being.
How fair, indeed, and not unmeet for a poet’s love. But there lies in her no germ of the celestial destiny of Dante’s Saint. What she is, what she can be, it needs no Dante to discover.
She is not a lustrous, bewitching beauty, neither is she a high and poetic one. She is not a concentrated perfume, nor a flower, nor a star; yet somewhat has she of every creature’s best. She has the golden mean, without any touch of the mediocre. She can venerate the higher, and compassionate the lower, and do to all honor due with most grateful courtesy and nice tact. She is velvet-soft, her mild and modest eyes have tempered all things round her, till no rude sound invades her sphere; yet, if need sere, she could resist with as graceful composure as she can favor or bestow.
No vehement emotion shall heave that bosom, and the tears shall fall on those cheeks more like dew than rain. Yet are her feelings delicate, profound, her love constant and tender, her resentment calm but firm.
Fair as a maid, fairer as a wife, fairest as a lady mother and ruler of a household, she were better suited to a prince than a poet. Even if no prince could be found worthy of her, I would not wed her to a poet, if he lived in a cottage. For her best graces demand a splendid setting to give them their due lustre, and she should rather enhance than cause her environment.
There are three pictures in the comic kind, which are good. It is genteel comedy, not rich, easily taken in and left, but having the lights and shades well marked. They show a gentlemanlike playfulness. In Catharine and Petruchio, the Gremio is particularly good, and the tear distained Catharine, whose head, shoulder, knee, and foot seem to unite to spell the word Pout, is next best.
The Sisters—a picture quite unlike those I have named—does not please me much, though I should suppose the execution remarkably good. It is not in repose nor in harmony, nor is it rich in suggestion, like the others. It aims to speak, but says little, and is not beautiful enough to fill the heart with its present moment. To me it makes a break in the chain of thought the other pictures had woven.
Scene from Gil Blas—also unlike the others in being perfectly objective, and telling all its thought at once. It is a fine painting.
Mother and Child. A lovely little picture. But there is to my taste an air of got up naiveté and delicacy in it. It seems selected, arranged by “an intellectual effort.” It did not flow into the artist’s mind like the others. But persons of better taste than I like it better than I do!
Jews—full of character. Isaac is too dignified and sad; gold never rusted the soul of the man that owned that face.
The Landscapes. At these I look with such unalloyed delight, that I have been at moments tempted to wish that the artist had concentrated his powers on this department of art, in so high a degree does he exhibit the attributes of the master. A power of sympathy, which gives each landscape a perfectly individual character. Here the painter is merged in his theme, and these pictures affect us as parts of nature, so absorbed are we in contemplating them, so difficult is it to remember them as pictures. How the
clouds float! how the trees live and breathe out their mysterious souls in the peculiar attitude of every leaf. Dear companions of my life, whom yearly I know better, yet into whose heart I can no more penetrate than see your roots, while you live and grow. I feel what you have said to this painter; I can in some degree appreciate the power he has shown in repeating here the gentle oracle.
The soul of the painter is in these landscapes, but not his character. Is not that the highest art? Nature and the soul combined; the former freed from slight crudities or blemishes, the latter from its merely human aspect.
These landscapes are too truly works of art, their language is too direct, too lyrically perfect to be translated into this of words, without doing them an injury.
To those, who confound praise with indiscriminate eulogium, and who cannot understand the mind of one, whose highest expression of admiration is a close scrutiny, perhaps the following lines will convey a truer impression, than the foregoing remarks, of the feelings of the writer. They were suggested by a picture painted by Mr. Allston for a gentleman of Boston, which has never yet been publicly
exhibited. It is of the same class with his Rosalie and Evening Hymn, pictures which were not particularized in the above record, because they inspired no thought except of their excelling beauty, which draws the heart into itself.
These two sonnets may be interesting, as showing how similar trains of thought were opened in the minds of two observers.
“To-day I have been to see Mr. Allston’s new picture of The Bride, and am more convinced than ever of the depth and value of his genius, and of how much food for thought his works contain. The face disappointed me at first by its want of beauty. Then I observed the peculiar expression of the eyes, and that of the lids, which tells such a tale, as well as the strange complexion, all heightened by the color of the background, till the impression became very strong. It is the story of the lamp of love, lighted, even burning with full force in a being that cannot yet comprehend it. The character is domestic, far more so than that of the ideal and suffering Rosalie, of which, nevertheless, it reminds you.
The fainting traveller pursues his way,
O’er dry Arabian sands the long, long day,
Where at each step floats up the dusty soil;
And when he finds a green and gladsome isle,
And flowing water in that plain of care,
And in the midst a marble fountain fair,
To tell that others suffered too erewhile,
And then appeased their thirst, and made this fount
To them a sad remembrance, but a joy
To all who follow — his tired spirits mount
At such dim-visioned company — so I
Drink of thy marble source, and do not count
Weary the way in which thou hast gone by.”
Not pure enough the life with which we live,
To be full tranced by that softest grace,
To win all pearls those lucid depths can give.
Here Phantasy has borrowed wings of Even,
And stolen Twilight’s latest, sacred hues,
A Soul has visited the woman’s heaven,
Where palest lights a silver sheen diffuse,
To see aright the vision which he saw,
We must ascend as high upon the stair,
Which leads the human thought to heavenly law,
And see the flower bloom in its natal air;
Thus might we read aright the lip and brow,
Where Thought and Love beam too subduing for our senses now.
Source: The Dial (July 1840) pp. 73-84