Art: Harriet Hosmer's Zenobia

IT took a long while for artists to understand that the Greek face was the ideal face merely to Greek sculptors. During the baser ages of the sculpturesque art, (how far towards our own day the epicycle inclusive of those ages extended it would be invidious for us to say,) sculpture consisted of the nearest imitation of Greek models which was possible of attainment by talents, with an occasional intercalated genius, hampered by prevailing modes. That the Greek face was beautiful, none could doubt. That in the sovereign points of intellect it was the absolute beau-ideal is open to great doubt. Apart from all such questions, the fact of subservience exists. Even Benjamin Robert Hayden, the man who thought himself called to be the æsthetic saviour of the age, knew no other, no better way of making himself master of solid form than by lying down in the cold with a candle before the Elgin marbles. Let not this be mistaken as a slur upon one of the most devoted men in history, — a man who surely lived, and who, aside from the pangs of poverty, probably died, for the regeneration of Art. We only mean to select an instance preëminent over all that can be mentioned, to show that until a very late date even the most learned men in the Art-world had not cut loose from the fascination of old models, considered not as suggestive, but as dominant. There is nothing in the sculptors of Haydon’s period to prove that their view differed essentially from that of the most self-devoted theorist among painters.

We hold that it has been left for America to complete the æsthetic, as well as the social and political emancipation of the world. The fact that pre-Raphaelism began in England (we refer to the new saints standing on their toe-nails, not the old ones) proves nothing respecting the origination of Art’s highest liberty. In the first place, the man who was selected by the Elisha to be the Elijah of the school would under no circumstances have chosen a fiery chariot to go up in, but would have taken the Lord Mayor’s coach, (if he could have got it without paying,) and, like a true Englishman, been preceded by heralds, and after-run by lackeys. The idea of Turner en martyre is to a calm spectator simply amusing. If “ a neglected disciple of Truth ” had met him out a-sketching, and asked him for help, or a peep, he would have shut up his book with a slap, and said, like the celebrated laird, “ Puir bodie! fin? a penny for yer am sel'. ” In the second place, this Elijah never dropped his mantle on the soi-disant Elisha. Search over the whole range of walls where (with their color somewhat the worse for time) Turner’s pictures are preserved, and if any critic but Ruskin’s self can find the qualities which unite Turner with modern pre-Raphaelism, we will buy the view of Köln and make it a present to him. In the* third place, apart from all ancestry or indorsement, we regard modern pre-Raphaelism, as a school full of vital mistakes. It refuses to acknowledge this preëminent, eternal fact of Art, that the entire truth of Nature cannot he copied: in other words and larger, that the artist must select between the major and the minor facts of the outer world; that, before he executes, he must pronounce whether he will embody the essential effect, that which steals on the soul and possesses it without painful analysis, or the separate details which belong to the geometrician and destroy the effect, —still further, whether he will make us feel what Nature says, or examine below her voice into the vibration of the chordæ vacales.

We have not touched on pre-Raphaelism with the idea of attacking it, still less of defending it, and not at all of discussing it. Our view has been simply to excuse the assertion that with America has begun, must necessarily begin and belong, the enfranchisement of Art from subservience to a type,—the opening of its doors into the open air of æsthetic catholicity.

Years ago, the writer in several places presented to the consideration of American Art-lovers the plaster bust of “ The Old Trapper,” as one of the foremost things which up to that period had been done by any man for such enfranchisement as that referred to above. Palmer, the noble master and teacher of the sculptor who created this bust, had done many things entirely outside of the old ring-fence, had made himself famous by them ; but this, on some accounts, seemed to us the chief, because the most audacious of all. What did it represent ? Simply an old, worn, peril-tried, battle-scarred man, who had fought grislies and Indians, — walked leagues with his canoe on his back, — camped under snow-peaks, — dined on his rifle’s market, — had nothing but his heroic pluck, patience, and American individuality, to fascinate people, — and now, under a rough fur cap of his own making, showed a face without a line that was Greek in it, and said to Launt Thompson, “ Make me, if you dare ! ”

What we then admired in “ The Old Trapper “ we now admire in Miss Hosmer’s “Zenobia.”

There now stands on exhibition in this country one of the finest examples of the spirit which animates our best American artists in their selection of ideals, and their execution of them on the catholic principle.

Miss Hosmer has not thought it necessary to color her statue, because she knew that the utmost capability of sculpture is the expression of form, — that, had she colored it, she would have brought it into competition with a Nature entirely beyond her in mere details, and made it a doll instead of a statue. Neither has she made it a travel-stained woman with a carpet-bag, because in history all mean details melt away, and we see its actors at great distances like the Athenè, and because our whole idea of Zenobia is this : —

A Queen led in Chains.

Neither has she made her Zenobia a Greek woman, because she was a Palmyrene, What she has made her is this:—

Our idea of Zenobia won from Romance and History.

This Zenobia is a queen. She is proud as she was when she sat in pillared state, under gorgeous canopies, with a hundred slaves at her beck, and a devoted people within reach of her couriers. She does not tremble or swerve, though she has her head down. That head is bowed only because she is a woman, and she will not give the look of love to the man who has forced her after him. Her lip has no weakness in it. She is a lady, and knows that there is something higher than joy or pain. Miss Hosmer has evidently believed nothing of the legends to the effect that she did swerve afterward, else she could not have put that noble soul in her heroine’s mouth. Or did she believe the swerving, she must have felt that Aurelian had the right, after all pain and wrong, to come and claim the queen, — to say, —

“ I did all this wrong for you, and you were worth it.”

The face (perhaps, with the present necessities of a catholicized Art, its most important excellence) is not a Greek face, but a much farther Oriental.

The bas-reliefs of Layard’s Nineveh are not more characteristic, national, faithful to the probable facts in that best aspect of facts with which Art has to do.

As for the figure, none of those who from Roman studios have hitherto sent us their work have ever given a juster idea of their advancement in the understanding of the human anatomy. The bones of the right metatarsus show as they would under the flesh of a queenly foot. The right foot is the one flexed in Zenobia’s walking, and that foot has never been used to support the weight of burdens; it has gone bare without being soiled. The shoulders perfectly carry the head, and no anatomist could suggest a place where they might be bent or erected in truer relative proportion to either of the feet. The dejection of the right arm is a wonderful compromise between the valor of a queen who has fought her last and best, and the grief of a woman who has no further resource left to her womanliness.

Both arms, in their anatomy, in their truthfulness to the queenly circumstances, may equally delight and challenge criticism, The chains which the queen carries are smaller than we suspect a Roman conqueror put even upon a woman and a queen ; but let that pass, — for they do not hurt the harmony of the idea, and are simply a matter of detail, which womanly sympathy might well have erred in since chivalric days, though their adherence to actual truth would not have blemished the idea. At all events, Zenobia holds them like a queen, so as not to hurt her. She will remember her glory, and not be too forcibly reminded of her loss.

The drapery of the statue is a subordinate matter ; but that has been attended to as true artists attend to even the least things which wait on a great idea. The tassels of the robe have been chiselled by Miss Hosmer’s marble - cutter with a care which shows that the last as well as the first .part of the work went on under her womanly supervision. Every fold of the robe, which must have been copied from the cast, falls and swings before our eyes as the position demands. Grace and truth lie in the least wrinkle of a garment which needs no after-cast of the anatomist’s cloak of charity to hide a sin.

In many respects, we regard Miss Hosmer’s “Zenobia” as one of the very highest honors paid by American Art to our earliest assertions of its dominant destiny.