Washington Allston

George and Evert Duyckinck, in Cyclopedia of American Literature (1856; 1875) 2:16-20.

It is a pleasing moral coincidence which has been remarked that two of the foremost names in our national literature and art should be associated with that of the great leader, in war and peace, of their country.

Washington Allston, the descendant of a family of much distinction in South Carolina, was born at Charleston, November 5, 1779. He was prepared for college at the school of Mr. Robert Rogers, of Newport, R. I.; entered Harvard in 1796, and on the completion of his course delivered a poem.

He returned to South Carolina; sold his property; sailed for England, and on his arrival in London became a student of the Royal Academy, then under the presidency of Benjamin West. Here he remained for three years, and then, after a sojourn at Paris, went to Rome, where he resided for four years, and became the intimate associate of Coleridge.

In 1809 he returned to America for a period of two years, which he passed in Boston, and at this time married the sister of the Rev. Dr. Channing. He also delivered a poem before the Phi Beta Kappa Society. In 1811 he commenced a second residence in London, where, in 1813, he published a small volume, The Sylphs of the Seasons, and other Poems, which was reprinted in Boston the same year. The date is also marked in his career by the death of his wife, an event which affected him deeply.

During this sojourn in Europe, which extended to 1818, several of his finest paintings were produced. On his return home he resumed his residence at Boston. In 1830 he married a sister of Richard H. Dana, and removed to Cambridgeport. His lectures on Art were commenced about the same period. It was his intention to prepare a course of six, to be delivered before a select audience in Boston, but four only were completed, and these did not appear until after his decease.

In 1841 he published Monaldi, an Italian romance of moderate length, which had been written as early as 1821 when Dana published his Idle Man, and, but for the discontinuance of that work, would probably have appeared there. In the latter part of his life he was chiefly engaged on his great painting of Belshazzar's Feast. After a week's steady labor on this work, he retired late on Saturday night, July 8, 1843, from his studio to his family circle, and after a conversation of peculiar solemnity, sat down to his books and papers, which furnished the usual occupation of a great portion of his nights. It was while thus silently sitting alone near the dawning of Sunday, with scarce a struggle, he was called from the temporary repose of the holy day to the perpetual Sabbath of eternity. His remains were interred at the setting of the sun on the day of the funeral, in the tomb of the Dana family in the old Cambridge graveyard.

Had Mr. Allston been a less severe critic of his own productions he would have both painted more and written more. Nothing left his easel or his desk which was not the ripe product of his mind, which had cost not only labor but perplexity, from the frequent change to which his fastidiousness submitted all his productions. His Belshazzar's Feast, as it hangs in its incomplete state in the Boston Athenaeum, shows a strange and grotesque combination of figures, of gigantic mingled with those of ordinary stature. It is owing to the artist's determination, when his work was nearly completed, to reconstruct the whole, and by the radical change we have mentioned, as well as others of composition, render his months of former labor null and void. Had his life been extended the work no doubt would have been completed, and have created the same feelings of awe and admiration which some of its single figures, that of the Queen for example, now excite; but as it stands, it is perhaps a more characteristic as well as impressive monument of the man.

With the exception of this work, Mr. Allston's productions are all complete.

In the Spring of 1839, Allston exhibited, with remarkable success, a gallery of his paintings at Boston. They were forty-five; brought together from various private and other sources. A letter was published at the time in the New York Evening Post, noticing the collection, which was understood to be written from Dana to his friend Bryant. It speaks of "the variety and contrast, not only in the subjects and thoughts, and emotions made visible, but in the style also," and finds in the apparent diversity "the related variety of one mind." Several of the more prominent subjects, and the influence breathing from them, are thus alluded to: — "Here, under the pain and confused sense of returning life lay the man who, when the bones of the prophet touched him, lived again. Directly opposite sat, with the beautiful and patiently expecting Baruch at his feet, the majestic announcer of the coming woes of Jerusalem, seeing through earthly things, as seeing them not, and looking off into the world of spirits and the vision of God. What sees he there? Wait! For the vision is closing, and he is about to speak! And there is Beatrice, absorbed in meditation, touched gently with sadness, and stealing so upon your heart, that curiosity is lost in sympathy — you forget to ask yourself what her thought? and look in silence till you become the very soul of meditation too. And Rosalie, born of music, her face yet tremulous with the last vibrations of those sweet sounds to which her inmost nature had been responding. What shall I say of the spiritual depth of those eyes? You look into them till you find yourself communing with her inmost life, with emotions beautiful, exquisite, almost to pain. Indeed, when you recollect yourself, you experience this effect to be true of nearly all these pictures, whether of living beings or of nature. After a little while you do not so much look upon them as commune with them, until you recover yourself, and are made aware that you had been lost in them. Herein is the spirit of art, the creative power — poetry. And the landscapes — spots in nature, fit dwelling-places for beings such as these!"

His poems, though few in number, are exquisite in finish, and in the fancies and thoughts which they embody. They are delicate, subtle, and philosophical. Thought and feeling are united in them, and the meditative eye

—which hath kept watch
o'er mail's mortality

broods over all. In "The Sylphs of the Seasons" he has pictured the successive delights of each quarter of the year with the joint sensibility of the poet and the artist, bringing before us a series of images of the imagination blended with the purest sentiment.

If the other poems may be described as occasional, it should be remarked they are the occasions not of a trifler or a man of the world, but of a philosopher and a Christian, whose powers were devoted to the sacred duties of life, to his art, to his friends, to the inner world of faith. In this view rather than as exercises of poetic rhetoric, they are to be studied. One of the briefer poems has a peculiar interest, that entitled Rosalie. It is the very reflection in verse of the ideal portrait which he painted, bearing that name.

His lectures on Art, published after his decease, in the volume edited by R. H. Dana, Jr., show the vigorous grasp, the intense love, the keen perception which we should naturally look for from such a master.

Monaldi is an Italian story of jealousy, murder, and madness. Monaldi is suspicious of his wife, kills her in revenge, and becomes a maniac. The work is entirely of a subjective character, dealing with thought, emotion, and passion, with a concentration and energy for which we are accustomed to look only to the greatest dramatists. The chief scene of the volume is the self-torturing jealousy of Monaldi, contrasted with the innocent calmness of his wife. We read it with shortened breath and a sense of wonder. Not less powerfully does the author carve out, as it were, in statuary, the preliminary events by which this noble heart falls from its steadfast truth-worshipping loyalty. We see the gradual process of disaffection, from the first rude physical health of the soul, when it is incapable of fear or suspicion, rejecting the poison of envy; then gradually admitting the idea as if some unconscious act of memory, a haunting reminiscence, then recurring wilfully to the thought, till poison becomes the food of the mind, and it lives on baleful jealousies, wrongs, and revenges: the high intellectual nature, so difficult to reach, but the height once scaled, how flauntingly they bear the banner of disloyalty; Monaldi, like Othello, then spurns all bounds; like Othello, wronged and innocent.

Those who had the privilege of a friendship or even an acquaintance with Allston, speak with enthusiasm of his conversational powers. He excelled not only in the matter but the manner of his speech. His fine eye, noble countenance, and graceful gesture were all unconsciously brought into play as he warmed with his subject, and he would hold his hearer by the hour as fixedly with a disquisition on morals as by a series of wild tales of Italian banditti. Allston gave his best to his friends as well as to the public, and some of his choicest literary composition is doubtless contained in the correspondence he maintained for many years with Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, Lamb, and others among the best men of his, and of all time.

In an enumeration of the published works of Mr. Allston, the volume of outline engravings from the sketches found in his studio after his decease should be especially commemorated, for it contains some of his most beautiful as well as most sublime conceptions; and as nearly all his paintings, with the exception of the Belshazzar, are the property of private individuals, forms almost the only opportunity accessible to the general public for the enjoyment of his artistic productions. His manner may there be learnt in its precision, strength, grandeur, and beauty.

Of the moral harmony of Allston's daily life, we have been kindly favored with a picture, filled with incident, warm, genial, and thoroughly appreciative, from the pen, we had almost said the pencil, of the artist's early friend in Italy, Washington Irving. It is taken from a happy period of his life, and our readers will thank the author for the reminiscence:—

"I first became acquainted," writes Washington Irving to us, "with Washington Allston, early in the spring of 1805. He had just arrived from France, I from Sicily and Naples. I was then not quite twenty-two years of age — he a little older. There was something, to me, inexpressibly engaging in the appearance and manners of Allston. I do not think I have ever been more completely captivated on a first acquaintance. He was of a light and graceful form, with large blue eyes and black silken hair, waving and curling round a pale expressive countenance. Everything about him bespoke the man of intellect and refinement. His conversation was copious, animated, and highly graphic; warmed by a genial sensibility and benevolence, and enlivened at times by a chaste and gentle humor. A young man's intimacy took place immediately between us, and we were much together during my brief sojourn at Rome. He was taking a general view of the place before settling himself down to his professional studies. We visited together some of the finest collections of paintings, and he taught me how to visit them to the most advantage, guiding me always to the masterpieces, and passing by the others without notice. 'Never attempt to enjoy every picture in a great collection,' he would say, 'unless you have a year to bestow upon it. You may as well attempt to enjoy every dish in a Lord Mayor's feast. Both mind and palate get confounded by a great variety and rapid succession, even of delicacies. The mind can only take in a certain number of images and impressions distinctly; by multiplying the number you weaken each, and render the whole confused and vague. Study the choice pieces in each collection; look upon none else, and you will afterwards find them hanging up in your memory.'

"He was exquisitely sensible to the graceful and the beautiful, and took great delight in paintings which excelled in color; yet he was strongly moved and roused by objects of grandeur. I well recollect the admiration with which he contemplated the sublime statue of Moses by Michael Angelo, and his mute awe and reverence on entering the stupendous pile of St. Peter's. Indeed the sentiment of veneration so characteristic of the elevated and poetic mind was continually manifested by him. His eyes would dilate; his pale, countenance would flush; he would breathe quick, and almost gasp in expressing his feelings when excited by any object of grandeur and sublimity.

"We had delightful rambles together about Rome and its environs, one of which came near changing my whole course of life. We had been visiting a stately villa, with its gallery of paintings, its marble halls, its terraced gardens set out with statues and fountains, and were returning to Rome about sunset. The blandness of the air, the serenity of the sky, the transparent purity of the atmosphere, and that nameless charm which hangs about an Italian landscape, had derived additional effect from being enjoyed in company with Allston, and pointed out by him with the enthusiasm of an artist. As I listened to him, and gazed upon the landscape, I drew in my mind a contrast between our different pursuits and prospects. He was to reside among these delightful scenes, surrounded by masterpieces of art, by classic and historic monuments, by men of congenial minds and tastes, engaged like him in the constant study of the sublime and beautiful. I was to return home to the dry study of the law, for which I had no relish, and, as I feared, but little talent.

"Suddenly the thought presented itself, 'Why might I not remain here, and turn painter?' I had taken lessons in drawing before leaving America, and had been thought to have some aptness, as I certainly had a strong inclination for it. I mentioned the idea to Allston, and he caught at it with eagerness. Nothing could be more feasible. We would take an apartment together. He would give me all the instruction and assistance in his power, and was sure I would succeed.

"For two or three days the idea took full possession of my mind; but I believe it owed its main force to the lovely evening ramble in which I first conceived it, and to the romantic friendship I had formed with Allston. Whenever it recurred to mind, it was always connected with beautiful Italian scenery, palaces, and statues, and fountains, and terraced gardens, and Allston as the companion of my studio. I promised myself a world of enjoyment in his society, and in the society of several artists with whom he had made me acquainted, and pictured forth a scheme of life, all tinted with the rainbow hues of youthful promise.

"My lot in life, however, was differently cast. Doubts and fears gradually clouded over my prospect; the rainbow tints faded away; I began to apprehend a sterile reality, so I gave up the transient but delightful prospect of remaining in Rome with Allston, and turning painter.

"My next meeting with Allston was in America, after he had finished his studies in Italy; but as we resided in different cities we saw each other only occasionally. Our intimacy was closer some years afterwards, when we were both in England. I then saw a great deal of him during my visits to London, where he and Leslie resided together. Allston was dejected in spirits from the loss of his wife, but I thought a dash of melancholy had increased the amiable and winning graces of his character. I used to pass long evenings with him and Leslie; indeed Allston, if any one, would keep him company, would sit up until cock-crowing, and it was hard to break away from the charms of his conversation. He was an admirable story teller, for a ghost story none could surpass him. He acted the story as well as told it.

"I have seen some anecdotes of him in the Public papers, which represent him in a state of indigence and almost despair, until rescued by the sale of one of his paintings. This is an exaggeration. I subjoin an extract or two from his letters to me, relating to his most important pictures. The first, dated May 9, 1817, was addressed to me at Liverpool, where he supposed I was about to embark for the United States:—

"'Your sudden resolution of embarking for America has quite thrown me, to use a sea phrase, all aback. I have so many things to tell you of, to consult you about, &c., and am such a sad correspondent, that before I can bring my pen to do its office, 'tis a hundred to one but the vexations for which your advice would be wished, will have passed and gone. One of these subjects (and the most important) is the large picture I talked of soon beginning: the Prophet Daniel interpreting the 'hand-writing on the wall' before Belshazzar. I have made a highly finished sketch of it, and I wished much to have your remarks on it. But as your sudden departure will deprive me of this advantage, I must beg, should any hints on the subject occur to you during your voyage, that you will favor me with them, at the same time you let me know that you are again safe in our good country.

"'I think the composition the best I ever made. It contains a multitude of figures and (if I may be allowed to say it) they are without confusion. Don't you think it a fine subject? I know not any that so happily unites the magnificent and the awful. A mighty sovereign surrounded by his whole court, intoxicated with his own state, in the midst of his revellings, palsied in a moment under the spell of a preternatural hand suddenly tracing his doom on the wall before him; his powerless limbs, like a wounded spider's, shrunk up to his body, while his heart, compressed to a point, is only kept from vanishing by the terrific suspense that animates it during the interpretation of his mysterious sentence. His less guilty but scarcely less agitated queen, the panic-struck courtiers and concubines, the splendid and deserted banquet table, the half arrogant, half astounded magicians, the holy vessels of the temple (shining as it were in triumph through the gloom), and the calm solemn contrast of the prophet, standing like an animated pillar in the midst, breathing forth the oracular destruction of the empire! The picture will be twelve feet high by seventeen feet long. Should I succeed in it to my wishes, I know not what may be its fate; but I leave the future to Providence. Perhaps I may send it to America.'

"The next letter from Allston which remains in my possession, is dated London, 13th March, 1818. In the interim he had visited Paris, in company with Leslie and Newton; the following extract gives the result of the excitement caused by a study of the masterpieces in the Louvre.

"'Since my return from Paris I have painted two pictures, in order to have something in the present exhibition at the British gallery; the subjects, the Angel Uriel in the Sun, and Elijah in the Wilderness. Uriel was immediately purchased (at the price I asked, 150 guineas) by the Marquis of Stafford, and the Directors of the British Institution moreover presented me a donation of a hundred and fifty pounds 'as a mark of their approbation of the talent evinced,' &c. The manner in which this was done was highly complimentary; and I can only say that it was full as gratifying as it was unexpected. As both these pictures together cost me but ten weeks, I do not regret having deducted that time from the Belshazzar, to whom I have since returned with redoubled vigour. I am sorry I did not exhibit Jacob's Dream. If I had dreamt of this success I certainly would have sent it there.'

"Leslie, in a letter to me, speaks of the picture of Uriel seated in the Sun. 'The figure is colossal, the attitude and air very noble, and the form heroic, without being overcharged. In the color he has been equally successful, and with a very rich and glowing tone he has avoided positive colours, which would have made him too material. There is neither red, blue, nor yellow on the picture, and yet it possesses a harmony equal to the best pictures of Paul Veronese.'

"The picture made what is called 'a decided hit,' and produced a great sensation, being pronounced worthy of the old masters. Attention was immediately called to the artist. The Earl of Egremont, a great connoisseur and patron of the arts, sought him in his studio, eager for any production from his pencil. He found an admirable picture there, of which he became the glad possessor. The following is an extract from Allston's letter to me on the subject:—

"'Leslie tells me he has informed you of the sale of Jacob's Dream. I do not remember if you have seen it. The manner in which Lord Egremont bought it was particularly gratifying — to say nothing of the price, which is no trifle to me at present. But Leslie having told you all about it I will not repeat it. Indeed, by the account he gives me of his letter to you, he seems to have puffed me off in grand style. Well — you know I don't bribe him to do it, and 'if they will buckle praise upon my back,' why, I can't help it! Leslie has just finished a very beautiful little picture of Anne Page inviting Master Slender into the house. Anne is exquisite, soft and feminine, yet arch and playful. She is all she should be. Slender also is very happy; he is a good parody on Milton's 'linked sweetness long drawn out.' Falstaff and Shallow are seen through a window in the background. The whole scene is very picturesque, and beautifully painted. 'Tis his best picture. You must not think this praise the 'return in kind.' I give it, because I really admire the picture, and I have not the smallest doubt that he will do great things when he is once freed from the necessity of painting portraits.'

"Lord Egremont was equally well pleased with the artist as with his works, and invited him to his noble seat at Petworth, where it was his delight to dispense his hospitalities to men of genius.

"The road to fame and fortune was now open to Allston; he had but to remain in England, and follow up the signal impression he had made.

"Unfortunately, previous to this recent success he had been disheartened by domestic affliction, and by the uncertainty of his pecuniary prospects, and had made arrangements to return to America. I arrived in London a few days before his departure, full of literary schemes, and delighted with the idea of our pursuing our several arts in fellowship. It was a sad blow to me to have this day-dream again dispelled. I urged him to remain and complete his grand painting of Belshazzar's Feast, the study of which gave promise of the highest kind of excellence. Some of the best patrons of the art were equally urgent. He was not to be persuaded, and I saw him depart with still deeper and more painful regret than I had parted with him in our youthful days at Rome. I think our separation was a loss to both of us — to me a grievous one. The companionship of such a man was invaluable. For his own part, had he remained in England for a few years longer, surrounded by everything to encourage and stimulate him, I have no doubt he would have been at the head of his art. He appeared to me to possess more than any contemporary the spirit of the old masters; and his merits were becoming widely appreciated. After his departure he was unanimously elected a member of the Royal Academy.

"The next time I saw him was twelve years afterwards, on my return to America, when I visited him at his studio at Cambridge, in Massachusetts, and found him, in the grey evening of life, apparently much retired from the world; and his grand picture of Belshazzar's Feast yet unfinished.

"To the last he appeared to retain all those elevated, refined, and gentle qualities which first endeared him to me.

"Such are a few particulars of my intimacy with Allston; a man whose memory I hold in reverence and affection, as one of the purest, noblest, and most intellectual beings that over honored me with his friendship."