Recollections of John Vanderlyn, the Artist

THE visitor to the Rotunda, in the L Capitol at Washington, sees, among the large historical pictures placed there by government, “The Landing of Columbus,” by Vanderlyn. In the Hall of Representatives is the full-length portrait of Washington, by the same artist. These, with one in the City Hall in New York (I think, the full-length portrait of President Monroe), are the only public works left to preserve alive the memory of one who, had he been careful of himself and attentive to his profession, would have been without a superior among American artists.

Vanderlyn was a protigt of Aaron Burr. He belonged to a Dutch family at Kingston, Ulster County, New York, where his father was a farmer. Near this place my father had a country residence, at which I spent all my early summers ; and it was to this circumstance that I owed my acquaintance with Vanderlyn, who had returned thither after the ruin of his patron.

When quite young, he was apprenticed to a wagon-painter, and in his employment remained until nearly twenty-one. Colonel Burr, in the day of his political and social elevation, when stopping at the tavern at Kingston, was shown some drawings by this country boy, in which he discovered the marks of genius. He sent for him, learned his condition and employment, and parted from him with the remark, “When you wish to change your situation, put a clean shirt in your pocket, come to New York, and ask for Colonel Burr.”

The manner in which Vanderlyn availed himself of this invitation showed the eccentricity of genius. A few months afterwards, while Burr was at breakfast, a rough country boy presented himself at the door and asked to see him. The servant made some difficulty about his admission, when he fairly forced his way into the breakfastroom. Instead of standing just inside the door, shuffling and bowing, as most boys in his situation would have done, he walked straight up to the table where Burr was breakfasting, pulled a coarse clean shirt from his pocket, and silently laid it down before him. The action at once recalled to Burr his speech, and, taken perhaps in some measure by its oddity, lie immediately adopted Vanderlyn as his protege.

Mr. Parton. in his Life of Burr, has given a modified account of this incident. 1 give it as received from Vanderlyn himself.

Every advantage was afforded the young artist in his profession, and he soon justified the good opinion of his patron. He was sent to Europe to remain for several years, and returned in 1801, at which time Burr thus mentions him in a letter to Thomas Morris : “ Mr. Vanderlyn, the young painter from Esopus, who went about six years ago to Paris, has recently returned, having improved his time and talents in a manner that does very great honor to himself, his friends, and his country. From some samples which he has left here, he is pronounced to be the first painter that now is or ever has been in America.”

It was at this time that he painted the portraits of Colonel Burr and Ids daughter (both profile likenesses) from which are copied the engravings prefixed to Davis’s Life of Burr. “ Vanderlyn,” writes Burr to his daughter, December 4, 1S02, “has finished your picture in the most beautiful style imaginable.”

When his patron was compelled to flee to Europe, in 1S08, Vanderlyn was there, and remained faithful when all the rest of the world seemed to have abandoned the fallen statesman. He shared his poverty, and was the only individual who fully knew the secret history of those days. When Burr was in humble lodgings in London, “at eight shillings a week,” and when, we are told by his biographer, “ one American friend only was admitted to the secret,” Vanderlyn was undoubtedly the “one.” He was always exceedingly chary of speaking of those times, particularly when the information was wanted for the press. Just after Burr’s death, a writer in New York got up a popularized biography of him (long since forgotten), and called on Vanderlyn for materials, but could extract no information from him.

“ But,” said the writer, “ tell me something about Burr’s private life.”

“ You had better let Burr’s private life alone,” was Vanderlyn’s significant reply.

He once told me that Burr, while they were in Paris, got him to draw a picture of a rock in the ocean, with the waves wildly dashing about it, surrounded by the motto, “ Nothing moves me.” Pie wished to have it engraved for a seal, and Vanderlyn says it was perfectly illustrative of Burr’s character. I have heard, indeed, from one of Burr’s friends, that it was a favorite saying of Burr, “ Accept the inevitable without repining,” It condensed into a short sentence the philosophy of his life.

Another little story which Vanderlyn once told me, has often occurred to me during life, when wondering how people could have the conscience to do different things. While with Vanderlyn in France, Burr one day wanted him to do something from which he rather shrank, when the following conversation took place.

V. “The fact is, Colonel, I can’t do it ; my conscience won’t let me.”

B. “Pooh! pooh! haven’t other people consciences, too ? ”

V. “Yes, Colonel, but not all of the same kindB

When Burr returned to America, in 1812, after his exile, he suddenly appeared in New York, and this generation cannot imagine how the city was electrified one morning by the brief notice in the paper : “ Aaron Burr has returned to the city, and resumed the practice of the law at - Nassau Street.” At that time the community could not imagine how he reached New York. Vanderlyn once told me the story of this return,—of Burr’s struggles in Europe, of his departure from France, and of his voyage home under the name of Arnot. He and Vanderlyn were in Paris together, and were both, as usual, entirely out of funds, (Burr writes in his journal, “ presque sans sous,”) when Vanderlyn negotiated with three gentlemen to furnish Burr with the passage-money, and painted their portraits in payment. Mr. Parton gives an account of Burr’s borrowing money in Paris for this purpose.

In 1807, the Emperor Napoleon offered a gold medal for the best original picture at the Exhibition of the Louvre, for the following year. Vanderlyn was then in Rome, where he painted his great picture of “ Marius on the Ruins of Carthage,” and submitted it for the prize. There were twelve hundred pictures exhibited by European artists, but the “Marius” took the medal.

Napoleon himself is said to have been exceedingly struck with the grandeur of its design. He was anxious indeed to become the purchaser of the picture, and to have it placed permanently in the Louvre ; but Vanderlyn declined, as he wished to carry it to his own country. It is stated that the Emperor passed through the gallery, accompanied by the Baron Denon and his artistic staff, and inspected all the pictures. Then he walked quickly back to the “Marius,” and bringing down his forefinger, as he pointed to it, said, in his usual rapid way, “Give the medal to that !

After the peace of 1S15, Vanderlyn brought the picture to America, and when it had been exhibited for some time in our Atlantic cities, the painter, failing in his hopes of founding a great public gallery, (for at that time there was little taste for art in our country,) sold it to the late Leonard Kip, Esq., of New York. In the correspondence on this subject, Mr. Kip said, in one of his letters: “The principal reason which induces me to make this offer for it is, that it is not only the work of an American artist, but of one who is a descendant, like myself, of a Dutchman, and one of the old settlers of the country.” In his reply, Vanderlyn writes : “ I prefer that the picture should belong to a public gallery. If I fail, I am not aware that I can place it in better hands, with reference to individuals, than your own, or where the same flattering considerations in behalf of the author would be entertained,—considerations which have their full value with an artist of the Dutch school.'1''

The work is intended to represent Marius, when, after his defeat by Sylla, and the desertion of his friends, he had taken refuge in Africa. He had just landed, when an officer came and thus addressed him : “ Marius, I come from the Prfetor Sextilius, to tell you that he forbids you to set foot in Africa. If you obey not, he will support the Senate's decree, and treat you as the public enemy.” Marius, struck dumb with indignation on hearing this, uttered not a word for some time, but regarded the officer with a menacing aspect. At length, being asked what answer should be carried to the governor, “ Go and tell him,” said he, “that thou hast seen Marius sitting on the ruins of Carthage.” Thus, in the happiest manner, he held up the fate of that city and his own as a warning to the Prcetor.

He sits, after having delivered this answer, with his toga just falling off his shoulders, and leaning on his short Roman sword. His helmet is at his feet; the ruins of Rome's old rival are around him; and at a distance, through the arches of the aqueduct, are seen the blue waters of the Mediterranean. Linder his left hand is the opening of one of those mighty sewers which now form the only remains of ancient Carthage, and at his right elbow is an overthrown Phoenician altar, on which we can trace the sculptured ram’s head and garlands. In the distance is a temple, with one of its pillars fallen, while a fox is seen among the ruins in front of its portico.

The figure of Marius was copied by Vanderlyn, in Rome, from one of the Pope’s guards, remarkable for his Herculean proportions, and the head was taken from a bust of Marius, bearing his name, which had been dug up in Italy. Any one familiar with the ruins in the South of Europe will at once recognize the composition of the different parts of the picture. The temple in the background is similar to the Parthenon at Athens ; the massive remains which tower over the head of Marius are like those of the villa of Hadrian, near Rome; while the ruined aqueduct in the distance is copied from the Claudian aqueduct, which, with its broken arches, sweeps over the desolate Campagna, from the city to the distant Alban Hills.

The picture itself is one with regard to which the judgment of all acquainted with such subjects has, for the last sixty years, confirmed the decision of the French Academy. It is something utterly unlike most modern paintings,

— devoid of their light, glaring, chalky appearance, and characterized by the deep-toned coloring and severe simplicity of the old masters. The tension of the muscles of Marius’s right arm, compared with the relaxed languor of the left, the fine disposition of light and shade, the reflection of the crimson toga on the body, the anatomical skill in the drawing of the figure, and the stern expression of the countenance, are points on which artists have always dwelt. Tuckerman, in his “ Artist Life,” has thus summed up his description : ‘‘The picture of Marius embodies the Roman character in its grandest phase, that of endurance; and suggests its noblest association, that of patriotism. It is a type of manhood in its serious, resisting energy and indomitable courage, triumphant over thwarted ambition,— a stern, heroic figure, self-sustained and calm, seated in meditation amid prostrate columns, which symbolize his fallen fortunes, and an outward solitude, which reflects the desolation of his exile.”

I have dwelt at some length upon this picture, because it is Vanderlyn's great work, and certainly one of the most celebrated historical pictures in the country ; and because, having belonged to a private family for two generations, it is now known to the public only by reputation, or through the medium of an indifferent engraving published by the Nesv York Art Union in 1842. The two grand traits of the painting

— its massiveness and deep-toned coloring—could not be represented in any way by an engraving. Some interesting facts with regard to it are contained in a letter addressed to the writer by Vanderlyn, and here printed verbatim.

u The picture was painted in Rome, during the second year of my stay there,— 1807. Rome was well adapted for the painting of such a subject, abounding in classical ruins, of which I endeavored to avail myself, and I think it also furnishes better models and specimens of the human form and character than our own country, or even France or England. And it is much more free from the fashion and frivolities of life than most all other places. The reception Marius met in Rome, when exhibited, from the artists there from various parts of Europe, was full as flattering to me as the award of the Napoleon gold medal which it received the next year in Paris. It gave me reputation there, and from an impartial source, mostly strangers to me. I had the pleasure of having Washington Allston for a neighbor in Rome, — an excellent friend and companion, whose encouraging counsels I found useful to me, as in all my embarrassments he readily sympathized with me. We were the only American students of art in Rome at that time, and regretted not to have had a few more, as was the case with those from most other countries. In a stroll on the Campagna, between Rome, Albano, and Frascati, in the month of May, in company with a couple of other students, one a Russian, we came upon the old ruins of Roma Vecchia, where a fox was started from its hiding-place ; and this was the cause of my introducing one in the distance of my picture, — too trifling a fact, perhaps, to mention.

“ I left Rome in December, and arrived in Paris in the beginning of 1808, and exhibited my picture there in the spring, at the public exhibition of the Louvre, where it received the medal through the hands of Baron Denon. He had first seen it in my studio, and expressed himself thus in favor of the picture :

‘ Cela porte un grand caractcre,’ — which was precisely what I had aimed at. Denon was an excellent judge of pictures, and well qualified to be at the head of the direction of the Musde Royale, &c. I never made any effort there to procure a sale for it, as my wish was to take it home, to form the origin of a gallery for our city, which was always my desire. But when I became embarrassed through the cost of my “ Rotunda,” I would have been glad to have found a purchaser, and was willing to cede the picture to your esteemed father.”

It would probably have been better for Vanderlyn had he remained in Europe. There, he was in an atmosphere of art ; his triumph over the European artists had given him a high reputation; he was on the road to fame and fortune; and he had every incentive to labor. As it was, he returned to settle down into indolence. He first built in New York, for the exhibition of panoramas, the Rotunda ” which for many years stood behind the City Hall. But the enterprise did not succeed; he was unable to pay the builder, and the edifice passed out of his hands. This seemed to dispirit and sour him ; he found there was no taste for art in that new community; and for the remainder of his long life he seeriied to be embittered against the country for not properly appreciating his works.

He returned to Kingston, his birthplace, and there, as I have before mentioned, 1 often saw him during my boyhood. For nearly twenty years there seems to have been an entire blank in his life. During all that time he painted scarcely any portraits, and no other works of which 1 am aware except his exquisite picture of Ariadne (a full-length female figure, perfectly nude), which I have lost sight of for many years, and his full-length portraits of Monroe and Washington, to which 1 have before alluded. For the latter, he was to have been paid one thousand dollars, but when it was placed in the Hall of Representatives, the members of Congress were so much pleased with it that they voted him twenty-five hundred.

Vanderlyn painted very slowly and elaborately, as I know to my cost. Believing that Burr’s estimate of him was correct, and that he was our ablest American artist, I had always been very desirous to have him paint the portraits of my father and mother. In 1833, accidentally meeting him in New York, I proposed to him to undertake the work ; but he declined, alleging that he had no studio. I found him living at an obscure French boardinghouse in Church Street, and I proposed to him to come to my father’s house and use the library as a studio. So he came, blocked up the windows, except a square place in the top of one of them, and began his pictures. It was in the autumn when he commenced, and the winter was nearly over when he finished. I wanted to use the library for my studies, and tired enough I was at the long exclusion. My mother sat for a couple of hours in the morning, and my father in the afternoon, and each of them had about sixty sittings. In this way the whole winter was spent. He made fine pictures, of course, but the victimized sitters felt that the cost was too great-

During this time my father accidentally discovered that the Napoleon gold medal was pawned in New York for thirty dollars, and redeemed it. After keeping it some time, he returned it to Vanderlyn. The Napoleon medals, executed under the direction of the Baron Denon, were celebrated in Europe. This one was the medal always used by the Emperor for rewarding civil services. On one side was a splendid head of Napoleon, and on the other a wreath of laurel, within which was the vacant space for engraving the name of the recipient, and the reason of the award. Vanderlyn’s medal had engraved on it, —


The year 1S42 brought what should have been a gleam of sunshine to the disappointed artist. Congress resolved to fill the remaining panels in the Rotunda of the Capitol with historical pictures, and one of them was allotted to Vanderlyn. He was to receive twelve thousand dollars, which sum was paid him in instalments while the work was going on. He went immediately to France, as a more convenient place for executing a great work, and there began his “ Landing of Columbus.” The relief, however, had come too late. The enthusiasm for art which marked his early years was gone ; he was old and broken in health and spirits, and his professional pride had given way in the mere struggle for money.

In 1844 I was in Paris, and, inquiring about the picture, found that it was advancing under the hand of a clever French artist whom Vanderlyn had employed. Of course, the conception and design were his own, but I believe little of the actual work. In fact, no one familiar with Vanderlyn’s early style could ever imagine the “ Columbus ” to be his. Place it by the side of the “ Marius,” and you see that they are evidently executed by different artists. The “Marius” has the dark, severe tone of the old masters; the “ Landing of Columbus ” is a flashy modern French painting.

Wishing to see whether I could not procure the Napoleon medal, I sought for Vanderlyn, and at length found him in the gallery of the Louvre, where he was copying pictures for some gentleman in Boston. I soon discovered that he was in an awful humor, perfectly embittered against his country, notwithstanding the late government patronage. In the course of our conversation, he ended one of his usual tirades with this remark : “ No one

but a professional quack can live in America. There’s the Lawrence family in New York; they brought forward a quack.”

This alluded to the fact that they had been the patrons of-, then a distinguished artist, and had brought him into notice. The remark, however, was intended for my own particular and especial benefit, as lie knew that I had married one of the Lawrence family. Without apparently noticing the personal character of his speech, I quietly remarked, “You remember, Mr. Vanderlyn, that Mr. Lawrence, in the latter part of his life, did not employ ——-, but took up Inman.”

“ Humph ! he was another charlatan,” was his reply; — so I found 1 had not gained anything by attempting a diversion.

One day, being with him in the Louvre, I determined to plunge into the subject of the medal. I felt very much interested about it, for the medal was of course worth more to us than to any one else, and should accompany the picture. I was afraid, too, that it would be pawned in Paris, and that, as Vanderlyn was getting old, it might after his death be entirely lost to us. So I began my inquiries in this wise, feeling my way.

“ Mr. Vanderlyn, I was at the mint to-day, and saw the bronze copies of the scries of French medals. I wished to get a copy of the Napoleon medal; but it is so many years since I have seen it, 1 could not remember which it was. Will you let me have it for a day to select the copy ? ”

V. {curtly.) “No, sir, I will not.”

A pause, — during which I said to myself, he has not got the medal.

V. {resuming.) “ The fact is, sir, the medal is not now in my possession.”

Another pause, while I thought, It is as I suspected ; he has pawned it again.

V. {going on.) “The truth is, sir. that, being in want of funds, I was obliged to place it in the hands of a friend. 1 shall keep the medal as long as I live, and then I don’t care what becomes of it.”

This was the confirmation of my fears, and, believing the case hopeless, we parted.

That evening I went to the American Legation. Our Minister, William Rufus King (who died while Vice-President of the United States), was not at home, and I saw Mr. Martin, the Secretary of Legation. I was telling him some of Vanderlyn’s speeches, illustrating Ids bitterness, when he said, “ I can show you something as good as that! ” He opened a drawer and took out a manuscript, which he informed me was a memorial addressed by Vanderlyn to the American Minister, detailing his grievances. These were certainly very amusing, and for the most part entirely imaginary, the paper being a general complaint against Mr. Cass, our former Minister to France. Two of the wrongs will do for specimens.

Mr. Cass had actually sent Vanderlyn an invitation to his balls ! “ As if,” writes Vanderlyn, “ such places of vanity and fashion were fit places for me ! ” Probably, if he had not been invited, that neglect would have been cited as the cause of complaint.

Again, Mr. Cass, in speaking to Vanderlyn about Healy, — a young American artist patronized by Louis Philippe, — had expressed his admiration of him for not letting his success “turn his head,” and had commended his simplicity and modesty. Whereupon the indignant Vanderlyn comments thus: “ I considered these remarks as a reflection on myself, implying that I was marked by the opposite qualities.”

It is evident from this how perfectly morbid he had become.

A couple of years later, Vanderlyn returned home with his picture, which is now in the Capitol, and which is altogether inferior to his earlier works. Some time after, in January, 1848, Kellogg, the artist, came over in charge of Powers’s Greek Slave, and went to my mother’s (as lovers of art often did), with the request that he might see the “ Marius.” My brother-in-law, the late Bishop (Burgess) of Maine, being there at the time, went in to show it. He wrote me, that he had gathered, from his conversation with Kellogg, that the Napoleon medal had been brought to this country.

Whereupon I made another effort to procure it. I wrote to Vanderlyn, and finally he informed me that it was in the hands of a gentleman in New York, who had brought it from Paris, and held it for a loan of some fifty-six dollars. After some correspondence he allowed me to redeem it, and papers were exchanged by which I became bound to restore it only to himself personally.

A few months afterwards, Crawford, the sculptor, sent to me, in the name of a number of artists, to inquire whether they could redeem the medal, which they wished to present as a compliment to Vanderlyn. I declined, for it was the second time it had been in the possession of my family, and, if returned to Vanderlyn, it would probably soon again pass out of his hands. It was best that it should go with the picture. And so it remained with me. Within the next six months, both Vanderlyn and Crawford died.

Vanderlyn had come back to the country, as poor as ever. He had spent the instalments of his twelve thousand dollars as fast as he received them. Age, too, was creeping over him, and he must before this time have reached his threescore years and ten. After my father's death he used to write to me occasionally, — for he seemed to consider my ownership of the “Marius” a tie between us, — generally to complain of his treatment by the world, and once to tell me of a raffle he had arranged to dispose of his two pictures of Niagara Falls. The drawing never took place, nor did I ever hear what became of the paintings. Froin my recollection of them, I do not think they possessed great merit. Landscape-painting was not his forte.

He had retreated back to Kingston, where he died in poverty about 1850, ending life where it began. Some years after his death, I cut from a newspaper the following account of a visit to his grave: “ The writer yesterday stood beside the grave of Vanderlyn, the artist. He is buried near the southern extremity of the beautiful village of the dead, called ‘ Wiltwyck Cemetery,’ at Kingston, N. Y. There is no stone, nor even mound, to mark the spot: only a few vines twining and intertwining, like the network of the life that was, but which now is forever ended. Patches of snow lay on the ground, and the trees still stood disrobed, save where, here and there, on the compact foliage of the cedars, the snow clung, making them seem like those twilight spectres which, in the old Norse legends, were said to haunt ruins.”

Such is the melancholy story of one who might have been one of the first artists our country has produced. He left, however, little behind him. Besides the pictures I have mentioned, there are only a few portraits among some ot the old New York families. Why he did not paint more, I do not know. Burr, in writing to his daughter, in 1802, says : “ Vanderlyn is run down with applications for portraits, all of which, without discrimination, he refuses.” Probably he neglected portraits while dreaming of grand historical pictures which he never had application enough to paint.

As is usual in such cases, no sooner was he dead, than the community began to wake up to an appreciation of his merits as an artist. It was the realization of what I found in a letter of my father to him, in reply to his complaints that the world undervalued his works. The “ Marius,” he writes to him in 1834, “will probably be more valued, when you and I care nothing about it.” The people of Kingston began suddenly to feel a pride in the fame of their townsman, and wrote to me to ask if I would sell them the “Marius ” to place in the court-house of their village. A number of public galleries made the same proposal; but the propositions were declined, and the “ Marius ” is now on the Pacific coast, where, at the time when Vanderlyn was sketching his hero in the “Eternal City,” the soil was trodden only by the wild Indian or the Franciscan missionary.

And now, as I write, I look up at Marius, and there he is, as grand as when he came from the artist’s hand, so many years ago. More than two generations have passed away since that time ; his early admirers are dust; the Roman artists, the great Emperor, the Baron Denon and his artistic staff, the men who gathered before the picture when first shown in New York, all are gone; but Marius still looks out from the canvas, the tints of which are only mellowed and softened by time. I think of the old Jeronymite monk who, when Wilkie was in the Refectory of the Escurial, looking at Titian’s famous picture of the Last Supper, said to him : “ I have sat daily in sight of that picture for nearly threescore years. During that time my companions have dropped off, one after another,— all who were my seniors, all who were my contemporaries, and many or most of those who were younger than myself; more than one generation has passed away, and there the figures in the picture have remained unchanged ! I look at them, till I sometimes think that they are the realities, and we are but the shadows! ”