NOT SO much criticism as personal recollections of the men who have “ painted and passed away,” and of some who are still working out the great problem of life among us, would seem to be wanted just now.
Let us begin, therefore, with GILBERT STUART, one of the best painters for male portraiture since the days of Titian, Velasquez, Rubens, Vandyck, and Rembrandt. A man of noble type himself, robust and hearty, with a large frame, and the bearing of one who might stand before kings, all Stuart’s men look as if they were predestined statesmen, or had sat in council, or commanded armies, — their very countenances being a biography, and sometimes a history of their day; while his women, often wanting in the grace and tenderness we look for in the representations of Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Sir Thomas Lawrence or Sully, are always creatures of flesh and blood, — like Mrs. Madison, or Polly Madison as they still persist in calling her, — though somewhat too strongly individualized perhaps for female portraiture.
At our first interview, which happened nearly fifty years ago, when Stuart was not far from sixty-five, this freshlooking, old-fashioned, large-hearted man, reminding you constantly of Washington himself, and General Knox or Greene, or perhaps of the late Mr. Perkins,— Thomas H., — who were all in their look and bearing rather more English than American, insisted on my emptying a tumbler of old East Indian Madeira, which he poured out from a half-gallon ewer, like cider or switchel in haying-time. And this at an early hour of the day, when cider itself or switchel might have been too much for a youngster like me, brought up, if not on bread and milk, at least on the plainest of wholesome food.
At first, having heard much of his propensity for hoaxing, I could hardly believe him when he threw off about half a tumblerful, and, smacking his lips, told me it was Madeira which had been twice round the Cape ; nor did he believe me, I am afraid^when I told him I never did anything of the sort, for he winked at me as much as to say, “ Can’t you trust me ? ” and then hoped for a better acquaintance.
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1868, by TICKNOR AND FIELDS, in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts.
In the course of an hour’s chat that followed, he told me story after story of himself, some of which are well worth repeating. First, he tried me with a pun, which he had let off in a high wind, for the sake of saying de gustibus non disputandum, and which I swallowed without a wry face, though it went sadly against my stomach ; and then he launched out into a severe though pleasant criticism upon our social habits, our Pilgrim Fathers, the blue laws, and what he called the bigotry and fanaticism of the day, intermingled with anecdotes of a rather startling character, and then followed some of his own personal experiences over the bottle.
At Philadelphia he had once belonged to a club of a dozen or twentygood fellows, who were a law to themselves. Once a year they came together, bringing with them twelve or twenty bottles apiece, according to their number, every drop of which it was a point of honor with them to drink off before they separated.
At one of these gatherings, — the very last, I believe, — a large hamper was set down between him and a neighbor who was reckoned a prodigious gourmet, and from whose decision about wines and vintages there was no appeal; and Stuart was urged, with a sly wink and a tap on the elbow, to “dip in”; his friend assuring him in a whisper, that a certain oddly shaped bottle, which he pointed out, contained the finest claret he had met with for years, — a downright purple nectar, indeed, — “ bottled velvet,” a compound of sunshine, ripeness, and aroma. Others of the company who sat near Stuart, and who had been favored in the same way, nodded assent, looked mischievous, and smacked their lips with decided emphasis in confirmation.
But while they were praising it Stuart stooped down, without being observed, and drew out a bottle of another shape, with a different seal, and amused himself with tasting it, until his friend, the connoisseur, happening to look that way, told him he had got hold of the wrong article, and then went on to say that he had lately bought several hampers at auction at such a bargain that he could well afford to throw away the doubtful portion, such as Stuart had been dabbling with. But being a very obstinate man, as everybody knew, Stuart persisted until he had nearly finished the second bottle, when he “ let the delicious secret out.” On being asked why he continued drugging himself with that detestable stuff, when he had a bottle of the finest claret before him, he said, “ Simply because, on the whole, I prefer Burgundy
“ Burgundy ! Burgundy ! ” they exclaimed ; “are you mad, Stuart, or is this only another of your jokes ? ” every man catching up a bottle, and pouring out a glass for himself, as the tumult increased. “Burgundy! and how happened you to know that it was Burgundy, Stuart ? ”
“By tasting. I took it for granted, from the shape and size of the seal and the fashion of the bottlethat it was something out of the common way ; for,” added he, “ the seals were emphasized, and had not been tampered with.” Of course there was nothing more to be said after the verification that followed.
At another time he was dining with Gouverneur Morris, after that gentleman’s return from Portugal. There was a large party of handsome women and fashionable men, who occupied high positions in Church or State, and carried their honors bravely. The conversation was chiefly about wines, and especially port wine and vintages ; their host maintaining, as well he might, that in this country we never saw any real port wine; and, among other pleasant things, he averred that more port wine, or what passed for port wine, was drank in London than was ever made in Portugal ; that even there the genuine article was never to be had for love or money, except under peculiar circumstances, — even the “old port ” of the London docks being, at best, but a decoction of logwood and elder-berries or grape-cuttings ; and that, in fact, the real Simon Pure was so utterly unlike what passes for port wine here and elsewhere, that our best judges would call it insipid, having neither body nor soul. Nevertheless, he had managed while in Portugal to make an arrangement whereby he could obtain a quarter-pipe now and then for himself or a friend as a special favor, the government itself being afraid to allow the exportation of unadulterated wines, lest they should injure the sale of the rest.
“And now,” said he, “to show you all how you have been abused in this matter, I must beg of you to try a glass of what I call port wine, —old port.— Here, George” (to a waiter behind his chair), “bring us up, — let me see,” — and here he glanced up and down the long table, as if counting noses, — “ bring us up three bottles, not more, — I cannot afford more, till my stock is replenished, — of the vintage I have been telling you of, — and give us dean glasses.”
The waiter soon appeared with just three bottles, fat and chunky, and covered with dust and cobwebs. The clean glasses were rather undersized, it must be acknowledged ; but they were filled, and held up to the light, and looked through, and then there was a deal of talk about the aroma, — the bouquet, — and what they called the body, as if it were condensed sunshine, flashing through a live grapery. Stuart was just raising the glass to his lips, when he caught a whiff of the aroma, and set it down, without tasting it, and without being observed. The talk went on. The ladies began to chirp and chatter like sparrows on the house-tops, — I give Stuart’s language, not my own, — and the sparkle of their eyes, and the uncommon freshness of their lips, by the time they had managed the second glass, only served to strengthen his crnvictions.
At last, after collecting the suffrages, which were not only unanimous but enthusiastic, the host turned to Stuart, and, seeing a full glass before him, asked what he had to say for himself, and whether he had ever met with such old port in all his life before. “ Never ! ” said Stuart; and then the host nodded and smiled, and looked about with a triumphant air, as much as to say. What did I tell you? “Never!” but still there was something in the look or tone of his guest which puzzled Mr. Morris, and seemed to call for explanation. “ Come, come, Stuart ! ” said he, “ none of your tricks upon travellers. We want your honest opinion, for we all know you arc the best judge of wines to be found on this side of the water ; and therefore I ask you once more, in all seriousness, if you ever drank such old port in all your life, either at home or abroad, ’pon your honor, now ? ”
“Never? said Stuart, — “ never ! ” And then there was a dead silence, and the host himself began to look uneasy, not knowing how to understand what he believed to be one of Stuart’s jokes ; and then Stuart added in his own peculiar way: “ You must excuse me, my friend, and you, ladies and gentlemen ; but I assure you that what you have all been taking for old port wine is not wine at all.”
“ Not wine at all,” exclaimed Morris, almost jumping out of his chair, — “ why what the — plague — is i t then ? ”
“ I should call it — excuse me,” — taking a sniff, as he passed it back and forth before his nose, — “I should call it cherry bounce ! ”
For a moment the host appeared thunder-struck, wellnigh speechless with amazement; but then, as if suddenly recollecting himself, his countenance underwent a change, and. calling the waiter, he said, “ George, you scoundrel! ” in a sort of stage whisper, that could be heard all over the room, — “George, tell me where you found these bottles.” The poor fellow trembled and shook ; but after a few words of explanation, Morris threw himself back in his chair, and laughed and laughed until it seemed as if he would never stop ; and it turned out that this port wine, so carefully selected by him in Oporto, and sent home years before, as he thought, was indeed nothing but cherry bounce, which had been put up and set aside for family use on special occasions long before he went abroad, till it was entirely forgotten.
Other conversation followed between us, about West and Trumbull, and about Washington and his wife, whose portraits were leaning against the wall. They were the originals from which he had painted all the copies he had furnished to the Marquis of Lansdown, Mr. Coke of Norfolk, the great commoner of our day, and others over sea. They were so unnaturally fresh, that, if he had not told me otherwise, I should have supposed they had been painted within a year or two at furthest. He talked freely of Washington, of his large features and stately bearing, and of the signs he saw, in the massive jaw, the wide nostrils, and large eye-sockets, that he was a man of almost ungovernable passions arid indomitable will, — such as would carry him not only into, but out of, many a terrible crisis, like that when he headed his troops, after the disastrous battle of Brooklyn Heights, and would have led them against the British at Kipp’s Bay, if they would have followed him, and when he held on his way with a loosened rein, cutting at the fugitives right and left as they hurried past, and snapping his pistols at the foremost, and would have been taken prisoner but for one of the faithful few about him, who seized .the bridle and turned him back ; or like that where, after the battle of Trenton, he came unexpectedly upon a body of Hessians, and leaped his horse between them and his own troops, and received the fire of both, like General Scott at Lundy’s Lane ; or like that where he crossed the North River in an open boat with only two or three officers, and actually landed on the other side, while the British, who bad carried Fort Washington by assault, were bayoneting our poor fellows without mercy. Washington could not bear this, and for a time he thought his personal appearance on the ground might change the face of affairs. It was a terrible rashness, though generous and heroic, and more like Napoleon at the bridge of Lodi than like George Washington. — We had no phrenologists at this time, or Stuart would have been a professor of that science, — for science it certainly is: he believed in Lavater, or at least In the leading principles of physiognomy.
Let us now call up another, who, after a long life spent in the service of sincere and high art, has gone to his rest, — REMBRANDT PEALE. Of him, notwithstanding his labors and success in historical painting, it must be acknowledged that he failed in portraiture : his portrait of Charles Matthews, the comedian, was almost a likeness of the great William Pinkney; and his portrait of Washington, though a better likeness of the man himself than Stuart’s, if we may trust Chief Justice Marshall and others among his contemporaries, yet wanted that which gives the greatest value to a likeness, —• individuality, inwardness, or glimpses of the inner man, a subdued though impressive ideality; a grandeur, not of the stage, nor the studio, but of the audience - chamber, the battle-field, or the closet.
Truthfulness we should have, or the likeness vanishes ; but with this truthfulness we want something more than the every-day or even the average expression : we want the acknowledged capabilities, and even the possibilities, of the original either demonstrated or at least clearly indicated. We are to choose between the countenance or expression that everybody is familiar with, — a business-face or a street-face,— and that which is never seen but on great occasions, and by the few, instead of the many, when all the hidden or hoarded characteristics of the man break forth in a tempest of eloquence, perhaps, or self-assertion, or it maybe in a gush of unspeakable tenderness. The great multitude who have seen the original year after year in his daily walk and conversation are acquainted only with the outer man, the husk or shell, and often cry out before a likeness which the wife or a dear friend of the original, who remembers him in the hour of inspiration, when he may have seemed almost a disembodied transfiguration of himself, would not bear patiently with for a moment.
That everybody recognizes the likeness at a glance, that comparative strangers are delighted with it, is no evidence that a portrait is what it should be. Ask those who are not comparative strangers, and hear what they have to say, before you make up your mind.
Stuart’s Washington, though untruthful, is grand, simple, and satisfying as a revelation. Peale’s, though truthful in every feature and lineament — a facsimile indeed — so far as the distinguishing peculiarities and every-day expression are concerned, is so unsatisfactory that you cannot help feeling uncomfortable on account of the resemblance. Stuart’s Washington is a downright American ; Peale’s, a Frenchman in ruffles and powder, elaborated for the occasion, and painted — like a Frenchwoman — to kill.
Undoubtedly, if Washington himself should reappear to-morrow, and stand side by side with Stuart’s picture, he would be called an impostor; and yet we cling to the magnificent shadow, and let the substance go, willing that Stuart himself should go down to after ages, instead of Washington.
As an historical painter Peale has never had justice done him, and one cannot help wishing he had been allowed to finish the “ Sermon on the Mount,” where the Saviour was represented sitting, as he ought always to be, when preaching to the multitude ; but he never got beyond the composition, grouping, and outline drawing,— which, by the way, was worthy of West himself, and smacked of the old masters, — for want of reasonable encouragement. The reception his “ Court of Death ” met with, after the first twelvemonth or so, and the embarrassments and cares of a large museum in Baltimore, and his costly experiments with gas, which he was the first to introduce to our people, so completely discouraged him, that, after trying New York and Boston, he betook himself to Philadelphia, where of course, in due time, he was gathered to his fathers—and forgotten, simply because Benjamin West — or Sir Benjamin West as they love to call him there, though he was never knighted — was their only standard.
My acquaintance with Mr. Peale began oddly enough. I had been scribbling in the papers about his gallery, and criticising some of the pictures, from sheer instinct and without any knowledge of painting. Among these I remember a portrait of Napoleon, painted by Peale one day when the Emperor sat hour after hour without moving, to receive a procession of deputies in the Champ de Mars. It was then believed that he had taken lessons of Talma for the occasion ; but, however that may be, he sat as if cast in bronze, — the enthroned Mysteries, while principalities and powers passed in review before him, — the shadows of coming empire, crowned and sceptred Phantoms on their way to Moscow. The occasion was eminently favorable, and the portrait, although wholly unlike any other I ever saw, especially about the lower part of the face, with the ponderous jaw and pallid complexion, was said to be the best likeness of that wonderful man ever painted, in two or three particulars, and especially in the parts I have mentioned. Such, at least, was the testimony of Gerard, Lefevre, and two or three more, who had been tried by his Imperial Majesty. It was one of the most remarkable portraits I ever saw, — pale, earnest, and thoughtful, with a mixture of sadness and solemnity, such as you would expect from, one who could see far into the future. The general contour was not obtrusively classical, as if modelled for a Roman bust or a cameo ; and the complexion, though strongly tinted, was something between the cadaverous and the swarthy ; and altogether as unlike anything I ever saw that passed for Napoleon, as the portrait of Byron by West the Kentuckian was unlike all that you ever see in the galleries and print-shops of the age.
I was invited to the first private exhibition of the Court of Death, while it was yet unfinished. On entering the large hall, used by the artist for philosophical experiments add lectures until he began his great picture, I found a small man, of about forty-live or fifty, I should say, with a mild, pleasant expression, and eyes that seemed looking beyond this and into another world. He stood as if studying the effect of certain touches just laid on.
The picture was by far the largest I had ever seen,—large enough, indeed, to nearly cover the whole end wall of the apartment, and, though crowded with figures of heroic size, did not seem either huddled or confused. Everything was clear and well pronounced, and the groupings were admirable. Not being well acquainted with the poem of Bishop Proteus, which Mr. Peale had translated with his pencil, and transferred to canvas, I questioned him about the general drift of the author, and must acknowledge myself profoundly impressed with the chief personage, — Death, — occupying the centre; not Death as we see him on the pale horse of West, from the Apocalypse, with Hell following after him, nor the raw - head - and - bloody - bones of the nursery, but Death as it must have appeared to the priesthood of Thebes, or to the Babylonian soothsayers,— a majestic figure, ot the old Egyptian type, and countenance fixed and unchangeable as that of the sphinx, and sitting with the waters of oblivion flowing over its feet, and all about it the dead and the dying, with War, Pestilence, and Famine, Fever, Madness, Intemperance, Old Age, and Pleasure, holding high carnival in its dread presence, and Old Age and Filial Piety working out the great problem of life in the foreground. Peale’s father stood for Old Age, and Filial Piety and Pleasure were pretty fair likenesses of two daughters he had been blessed with.
Seeing my attention fixed on the principal figure, Peale came up to my side, and stood still, as if waiting for me to speak first.
“ Is that yard-stick in the poem ? ” said I.
“ Yard-stick, sir !f’
I pointed to what he, and the Bishop too, had called, not a yard-stick, to be sure, but a wand, like that of a Prospero, stretching toward the spectator out of the dim, distant shadow, and foreshortened so that really it might have passed for a two-foot carpenter’s rule somewhat lengthened with a slide.
“ Ah ! ” said he, with a smile, after a few moments of rather embarrassing silence, "I don't much wonder that you should call it a yard-stick.” Was he getting personal, or had he never been told that I had once kept a retail haberdashery ? £‘ It has given me more trouble,” he added, “ than almost any other accessory of the picture; but what am I to do ? It is a part of the poem. I dare not abridge or interpolate ; and, moreover, it is the symbol of power, and by common consent would seem to be indispensable.”
“What are you to do?” I replied, pointing to the outstretched hand, which was admirably drawn, and boldly projected from a heavy mass of drapery. ‘•If you will but cover up that hand with a fold of that drapery, you will have, not the wand nor the yard-stick, which for supreme power would be but a symbol of weakness, — for no such instrumentality can be needed by such a being, any more than it would have been at first, when the decree went forth, “ Let there be light! ” — but the calm expression of latent or hidden power, — irresistible, inexorable power, — alike mysterious and awful, because you see only the outlines of a gigantic hand shrouded in darkness.”
The idea took with him, and he lost no time in painting out the hand, yardstick and all, and giving the drapery that grand expression of inward power now to be seen in the picture.
After this we grew intimate, and I was with him day after day till he had finished the picture ; and it was generally reported and believed that I had stood for the figure of War, — certainly the least original and the most melodramatic of the whole ; a very strange mistake, though I saw it circumstantially set forth in a printed circular not long ago, issued by the family, with the engraving. But perhaps this may be explained; for, although I did not stand for the warrior in his Court of Death, I did stand for another historical personage, -even Virginias,— in the Death of Virginia. It happened thus: One day Dr. John Godman, the celebrated anatomist and lecturer, who afterward married Angelica, Beale’s second daughter, and who had seen me with my right arm bare, after I had been sparring or fencing, I forget which, asked me if I would consent to help Peale in a desperate emergency. He wanted a leg or two, and a right arm, and knew not where to find them. I consented ; and soon after stood for the Roman father till I was ready to drop ; after peeling me, he transferred my right arm, uplifted and brandishing the bloody knife, and one of my legs, or both of them, to the canvas.
One day, when he was giving me some account of his past life, he told me that his father, Charles W., was a painter, — a painter by trade, be might have added, — indefatigable and laborious to a degree, until he had crowded the Philadelphia Museum with portraits of all our Revolutionary fathers worth mentioning; and all so much alike, owing perhaps to their military costume and powdered hair, that sometimes you could hardly tell one from another. Up to the age of ninetv or ninety-two, if I remember aright, this patriarch of the brush labored at the business of portraiture, and even went so far at that great age, like another Titian, as to undertake a full-length of himself, with his pallet on his thumb, going through a dim passage-way, and just lifting Ids foot to ascend a step, with his head turned over the shoulder to see who is following, — and with such success that strangers were constantly mistaking the picture for a living man. And I well remember the portrait of Colonel Burd, painted by him, without spectacles, at the age of eighty-three.
So enthusiastic was he, that he named all four of his sons after some of the great masters, — Rembrandt, Rubens, Raphael, and Titian ; and his example was followed by the eldest, Rembrandt, who named his first-born Rosalba, after Rosalba Camera, whose portrait of herself she copied with astonishing faithfulness ; and the second, Angelica, after Angelica Kauffmann, — to little purpose, it would seem, for she never manifested any liking for the art; and the youngest, Michael Angelo, which is about all we know of him, His uncle Titian, however, who went with Lewis and Clarke on their expedition to the Rocky Mountains, and made all the drawings, might have been distinguished as a painter, — he had it in him ; and then there was Anna, who painted miniatures, by no means remarkable for resemblance, though beautifully treated ; and Sarah, who confined herself to portraiture.
While yet a youth, or just entering on his early manhood, Rembrandt and his father and his uncle James determined to get up a Washington in partnership. The great man was overwhelmed with the cares of state, and could ill spare the time, but consented to sit nevertheless. Three different views were taken at the same time; and out of these — a full front, a threequarter face, and a profile — the celebrated portrait of Washington, lately purchased of the family with a Congressional appropriation, was made up after a lapse of thirty or forty years.
Before Peale settled in Baltimore, and established a museum almost a match for that of his father in Philadelphia, and a gallery by far the best in our country, unless we except the Philadelphia Academy, he had been twice abroad, — once with the skeleton of a mammoth, before mammoths were called mastodons ; and once in the hope of turning an honest penny, if not of making a fortune, by what he called encaustic or enamelled miniatures, which were to be not only incombustible, but imperishable. Both enterprises were failures, — disastrous failures.
On his last visit to England one of the most extraordinary incidents of his life occurred. He was on short allowance, and troubled and anxious about the morrow ; but still he could not bear the idea of giving up, and going back to his father in Philadelphia, before he had achieved something of a reputation at least. This, I should say, was before he had painted his Jupiter and Io, afterward rechristened the Dream of Love, with the head of Jupiter painted out; or the Roman Daughter nursing her father in prison, — the best thing he ever did in that way; or Napoleon crossing the Alps — on a stuffed horse: and while at best he was only a portrait-painter, and had never meddled with history, but made faithful and laborious likenesses, though wanting the oh arm of individuality, or, in other words, inspiration and exaltation.
At last, without knowing how it came to pass, he found himself on board a packet-ship, and half across the Atlantic on his way home, with no one thing he had gone abroad for and set his heart upon accomplished. But how came he there ? What had finally decided him ? And what had become of his wife and children ? and the bones of the mammoth he had blundered upon along the Ohio ? and the encaustic miniatures, which he had long before made up his mind to go down with to future ages ? He could remember nothing of all that must have happened ; perhaps he had lost his senses and wandered away, nobody knew whither. In the midst of this distressing selfexamination, happening to turn over in his berth, heart-sick and utterly discouraged, he caught a glimpse through the parted curtains of something which made him almost shout for joy as he sprang out of bed. It was a familiar article of furniture, and lo ! he found himself, when fully awake, in his own little snuggery, with all his family about him, and all London roaring in his ears. So strong had been the delusion, however, and so unexpected the sudden change, that he could hardly believe his own eyes ; and it required several minutes to satisfy him that he was not still dreaming, and that, of a truth, he ■was not half-seas over, on his way home, with all his hopes unfulfilled, and all his anticipations blasted forever, and his whole future life clouded with disappointment, remorse, and self-reproach. It was, after all, not so much a dream, he thought, as an “open vision”; but when fully awake, was he not the happiest man alive ?
But Beale was never the man to give up. He married anew, and settled down to his work in Philadelphia, longafter the majority of old men give up altogether, and begin, not only to build, but to occupy, their sepulchres. When “fourscore and upwards,” like Lear, and like Lear, too, “ mightily abused,” instead of saying, “ I do confess that I am old: age is unnecessary,” he went about the business of life with the face of an angel, and a heart overflowing with kindness and sympathy. His labors are beginning to tell on a new generation. A little book he published twenty or twenty-five years ago, wherein he undertook to show that drawing should be a part of our common-school education, and might be taught with writing, and as easily as writing, has borne fruit, and now the question is beginning to be settled in his favor all over the country.
And here another little incident occurs to me, which the good man always believed providential, strengthening his constitutional predisposition to kindness, and obliging him to set a watch upon his hasty temper. While yet a child, he threw something at a little kitten he was very fond of, and broke its back. The poor thing suffered cruelly and might have died, though she had “as many lives as Plutarch, but for the boy’s father, who nursed her with especial care, and helped her to live, that his child might be reminded as often as the poor little thing crept up to him, dragging her hind legs after her so piteously, what irreparable mischief may be done by giving way to a hasty temper. The lesson was effectual. He never needed another ; and I must say that during all the time I knew him, — and our acquaintance lasted for years,— I never saw him ruffled or flurried or impatient or querulous; his fine, clear eyes would flash, and his handsome mouth tremble with indignation sometimes, when “ much enforced,” but he never showed “ the hasty spark.”
Had Peale been permitted, or encouraged rather, to finish his “Sermon on the Mount,” I do believe it would have astonished everybody. The whole arrangement, grouping, and composition, and the drawing, were altogether beyond anything to be found in the “Court of Death.” It was of the same size, and may still be in existence for aught I know. But who shall bring it forth from its hiding-place and carry out the author’s magnificent conception ?
And now for another of these departed worthies, whom we “would not willingly let die” : JARVIS, - JOHN WESLEY JARVIS, — named after the celebrated preacher, who was a relative.
Jarvis, like Sully, was of English birth, but came over in his boyhood, and lived and died here. Nevertheless, our brethren over sea claim all American painters for Englishmen, if they were either born or bred in England. West, Allston, Stuart, Morse, Newton, Leslie, and King, though Americans by birth, learned their trade in England, and of course are English painters, if not Englishmen; while Jarvis and Sully, being born in England, though educated here, of course are Englishmen.
Beyond all question, Jarvis was the best portrait-painter of his day, within a limited sphere, — that of character when there was in it anything of the humorist. Being himself a humorist in the broadest and richest sense of the word, all his men were so distinctly individualized, and, as it were, branded, that there was no mistaking them. I never saw any of his women, but have an idea from what I knew of the man and saw in his pictures, that they were too manly by half, and would not have been much distressed if they had been set off with a riding-whip and spurs.
In stature he was about five feet seven, with large features, a dark, turbid complexion, a full chest, and a prodigious head, according to my present recollection, and when I knew him he was not far from forty-five years old. He was a man of imperturbable gravity on common occasions, and the best story-teller that ever lived. To him Charles Matthews was indebted for “Uncle Ben” and “that ’ere trifle,” and for many touches and intonations full of grotesque humor and astonishing truthfulness. Well do I remember an evening be passed with our Delphian Club, when he told us about the Kilkenny cats, and their fighting until there was nothing left but the tips of their tails, — a story older than Joe Miller, and one we had all been familiar with from our earliest boyhood. And yet, with his embellishments, and the running accompaniment of growling and sputtering and flashing, he threw us all, even the gravest of our number, Mr. Pierpont and Paul Allen and myself, into convulsions, though some had heard him tell the story before, and William Gwynn and General Winder more than once; I drove Breckenridge, author of “Views in Louisiana,” and a History of the War, from one side of a large open fireplace to the other, with my manifestations of ungovernable delight, and that, too, without being aware of the fact, until he was fairly corneredand could not move his chair another inch, that I had been pounding him black and blue. Some of the club actually shouted until they lost their breath, and tears stood in their eyes. And yet the stories Jarvis told were nothing of themselves, not even new in most cases, and seldom of greater length than five minutes.
But he was a sad dog at the best. In Audubon’s Ornithological Biography — which he might as well have named the Autobiography of American Birds — we have a capital sketch of Jarvis, with an account of his painting and shooting and naturalizing, well worth a place here. “ As I was lounging,” says Audubon, “one fair and very warm morning, on the levee at New Orleans, I chanced to observe a gentleman whose dress and other accompaniments greatly attracted my attention. I wheeled about and followed him for a short space, when, judging by everything about him that he was a true original, I accosted him. But here let me give you some idea of his exterior. His head was covered with a straw hat, the brim of which might cope with those worn by the fair sex in I830 ; his neck was exposed to the weather: the broad frill of a shirt, then fashionable, flapped about his breast, whilst an extraordinary collar, carefully arranged, fell over the top of his coat. The latter was of a light green color, harmonizing well with a pair of flowing nankeen trousers and a pink waistcoat, from the bosom of which, amidst a large bunch of splendid flowers of the magnolia, protruded part of a young alligator, which seemed more anxious to glide through the muddy waters of some retired swamp than to spend its life swinging to and fro among the folds of the finest lawn. The gentleman held in his hand a cage full of richly plumed nonpareils, whilst in the other he sported a silk umbrella, on which I could plainly read 'Stolen from J.,’ in large white letters. He walked as if conscious of his own importance, — that is, with a good deal of pomposity, singing ‘My love is but a lassie yet,’ and that ” — observe this little touch — “and that, with such a thorough imitation of the Scotch emphasis, that, had not his physiognomy brought to my mind a denial of his being born ‘within a mile of Edinboro’,’ I should have put hint down in nty journal for a true Scot.” And so would Charles Matthews, I dare say; for he borrowed largely from Jarvis in that department, as well as in that which not only passed for, but was of a truth, unequalled and unadulterated Yankee. “But no,” continues our ornithologist, “ his tournure, nay, the very shape of his visage, pronounced him an American, from the further part of our Eastern Atlantic shores.” Not only a genuine Yankee, therefore, but a DownEaster! How admirable must have been the acting of this Englishman, who was never Down East in all his life, and never much in any part of New England, to deceive such a close observer.
Another free witness once told me that he saw Jarvis in New Orleans with a hat full of snakes, lizards, and cockroaches, or other abominations, — not in his hand, but on his head, in a hot, sultry day.
He was an atrocious punster, and used to keep a large nutmeg-grater on the mantel-piece in his painting-room, to which, when he was asked by a sitter if such or such a person — a preacher perhaps or a painter, a statesman or a player— was not a great man, he would point, saying “ There’s a greater and this he did year after year, as a sort of standing joke.
One day, when he was painting Archbishop Carrol, that amiable and excellent man, who had long intended to have a little serious talk with Jarvis, if he could get a chance, began a long way off with a word or two which set the free-thinker, or atheist, on his guard. “ Shut your mouth, sir,” said Jarvis, leaving the forehead, upon which he was at work, and coming down to the lower part of the face. After a few minutes, the good prelate made another attempt, but with no better success. “ Keep your mouth shut, if you please,” said Jarvis, without looking up. And there the matter ended, and the simplehearted churchman went away without a suspicion of the trick, as he himself acknowledged, when speaking of the painter and of his uncouth manners and strange eccentricities.